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Open Unlimited Class – Sholavaram 1974, a glimpse of India’s motorcycling history

Sholavaram was the single bedrock to prop up Indian motorsport from the late 1950s to early 1990 & events like the 1974 Open Unlimited Class Grand Prix harks at our rich but poorly documented history

Just the thought of reliving the past and reflecting as to how rich motorcycling in India was is something I would like to share with all our readers so that they do not think that racing is a recent modern day fad. We kick off proceedings with a glorious shot of the first row of the grid for the Open Unlimited Class Grand Prix for the Mico Bosch Trophy at the hallowed Sholavaram circuit that sustained our sport from the mid-1960s till the MMST’s Sriperumbudur race circuit got going in the early 1990s. This was a proper 50-lap Grand Prix unlike the present day sissy one make affairs run over 10 or 12 laps that we deem as progress these days! And yes it was the signature event of the 17th All Indian Motor Race Meet organised by the Madras Motor Sports Club on February 10, 1974.

The great thing about these races was the fact that the Open Unlimited Grand Prix also saw classes for the Indian modified bikes run concurrently. We thus had the 185cc class guys (Rajdoots and Enfield Crusaders) going hammer and tongs against the 260cc set (mostly Jawas and Yezdis but it did get a smattering of Enfield 200s a few years later) while the rumbling 4-stroke Enfield Bullets dominated the 360cc class. Each of these were fighting for their own individual class glory over 50 laps of the T-shaped Sholavaram airfield circuit plus they were also eligible for honours in the Open Unlimited Class as well! It further enlivened proceedings when the fleet 185cc and 260cc two-strokes would harry the 360cc four-strokes in the early laps, making for an interesting spectacle that would have the near 50,000 plus spectators riveted to their perch on the temporary bamboo grandstands, erected for this annual celebration of speed.

This glorious image (by the great gentleman and hobbyist shutterbug Jagannath Rao) in slightly frayed black and white has no less than four different brands of racing machinery and some of the great names to have enthralled motorcycle-racing enthusiasts in the sub-continent in the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s. Starting from the right with the bike nearest the camera is the great Ceylonese rider U D Jinadasa on his immaculately turned out Norton Manx 500, who as it transpired went on to win the race. Next to him is his compatriot Bharat Mirando on a hot quarter-litre Honda (I surmise about the displacement but am not sure as I couldn’t get this particular detail spot on). Then come two other ace riders from the island nation with Raja Perera on his Yamaha TD2 (in black leathers and facing the camera), and the great Fricky Khan aboard his Yamaha TZ350. This was probably the first time we saw these state-of-the-art, liquid-cooled, twin-cylinder, two-stroke, over-the-counter Grand Prix machines racing in India and it yet had the large twin leading shoe drum brake denoting it to be one of the first of this breed in the sub-continent.

“It was lovely to hear the sweet symphony from the twin-cylinder Yamahas as they  accelerated out”

Also looking at the camera square on is the great Indian ace and favourite son of Madras, Sherif Dyan on his trusty Reid-Titan prepared and tuned Honda 250 twin with which he had won so many races not just at Sholavaram but also at Lohegaon in Poona, Yellahanka in Bangalore as well as in Ceylon and Singapore. And the man astride the machine, furthest from the camera is the one and only B S Shinde, ace mechanic who rose to head the R&D as well as racing department at Ideal Jawa. Shinde was also a very good racer and it was an era when Ideal Jawa had the only factory team in motorcycle racing in the country. And they did full justice to the sport by not just a token participation but by entering a full-fledged team with three to four works riders every year. What set Ideal Jawa apart then was the fact that the riders were all employed in the factory and apart from Shinde we had the likes of the firm’s Technical Director Rustom Hormuzdi, Sheroy Irani, Fariborz Irani and Tehmton Irani astride these machines which were basically heavily breathed on Type 353s as sold in India then. However, the bike that Shinde is astride in this image was a very special Yezdi Sports 250, with a fantastically light double cradle frame, an all-new competition motor from Czechoslovakia and with glorious handling.

Some details I would like to point out. All from U D Jinadasa and B S Shinde who are wearing the more modern jet-type helmets, everyone else, even on the screamingly quick Yamahas, wore pudding basin helmets! Then there is the fact that all the bikes sport large drum brakes and in fact there was a singleton example of the Honda CB750 (ridden by L Paul Raj) on the second row of the grid which featured a disc brake up front! Yes it needed the grand daddy of all modern day superbikes to spearhead the way forward on this front and you certainly needed very good brakes at Sholavaram given its flat out and never ending long main straight – rivalling even that at the BIC in Noida! Other details to note include the Hindustan Ambassador course car in the background, period advertising from Geep Flashlight Industries and also TI Diamond Chains (the latter still with us and thriving). And the course splitters for the wide main straight to demarcate track limits using large OTR Dunlop tyres!

These six machines represented a changing of the guard in world motorcycle racing, The Norton Manx was at it from the first year of the World Motorcycle Road Racing Championships in 1949 and was still going strong in events all over the world but its glory days were practically over. The small four-stroke Hondas represented the advent of the Japanese as they blew away the European competition in the 1960s while the Yamahas represented a bold new approach to democratising the sport from the early 1970s. And yes the interloper was the Jawa-CZ based Yezdi Sport that was what passionate souls would do with nothing but ingenuity and yet come out as giant slayers, on occasion.

“This bike with its twin straight open exhaust pipes could be heard anywhere on the circuit with its loud gruff notes which conveyed the impression as if it was doing a million miles an hour. Sadly it was the one time when sound travelled faster than light!”

Another detail that stood out were the totally different exhaust notes played out by all the bikes. The Norton Manx with its deep-throated bellowing note from its megaphonic exhaust was in sync with its heft and persona from a different era yet sounded so right at this airfield circuit. But interestingly it wasn’t the loudest, that honour comfortably the preserve of Dyan’s Reid-Titan Honda 250. This bike with its twin straight open exhaust pipes could be heard anywhere on the circuit with its loud gruff notes which conveyed the impression as if it was doing a million miles an hour. Sadly it was the one time when sound travelled faster than light! The crackling exhaust note from the Yezdi Sport’s single expansion chamber was slightly more hurried than what many had experienced with the breathed on Type 353s but it was left to the two Yamaha twin-cylinder machines to deliver the most melodious notes as they went through the gears and shrieked and wailed in supreme tenor. Given the fact that the T-shaped Sholavaram circuit featured three hairpins, it was fabulous to hear the sweet music from the twin-cylinder Yamahas as they accelerated out of them with their pilots feeding in ever increasing doses of throttle to further heighten the sensory pleasures of sight and sound for the 50,000 plus spectators riveted to their seats on the temporary bamboo stands.

So gentlemen, I will conclude by not saying the magical words “start your engines” because even though the riders might be sitting astride their bikes in the image, it was the lull before the storm for the races always got underway with the time honoured bump start procedure!

Note: Do write in with your comments and tell us what you think of this new section. Also if anyone of you from that era can throw light on Mirando’s Honda or for that matter any other bike or rider here in this image, we would welcome the information just so that we would always like to chronicle history with all the authenticity and accuracy at our command and if you guys could add to our efforts so much the better.

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