"MERVYN - MAN OF THE RUDGE"
Interview with Mervyn from "Classic Racer", winter 1990, By John Brown
"It's part of life, one of the family by now I suppose," remarked Mervyn Stratford as he cast a satisfied glance at the rapid 250 cc Rudge that has brought him countless successes for over two decades. The 1934 Rudge was acquired by Mervyn for the princely sum of £5 in 1967 - these days the asking price would be nearer £5000! He started racing it the following year and bike and owner were soon dominating the class at vintage meetings throughout the country.
Victory in the Vintage Club 250 championship in 1969, '70 and '71 made him the outright winner of the trophy which now graces his home in the village of Oakley on the main road between Bicester and Thame. "Since then I have won that particular championship ten more times but we only get replicas these days," said Stratford. His first innings with the Rudge lasted for ten years until he gave the 1979 season a miss when his son Roy was born (1980). He was back in 1980 for another three years before work commitments caused him to take another break. "I managed to get in a couple of meetings during 1987 and from then on it has been a full vintage programme for the Rudge and I," he said. An engineer by trade Mervyn has a well appointed workshop at his home (it is even insulated to keep the temperature constant) and prepares engines for other racers and enthusiasts as well as his own. 'The machine room' is equipped with a milling machine, surface grinder and a lathe that he bought as semi scrap and put into working order himself.
Mervyn also make parts for vintage cars, tooling and makes spares for the Rudge Enthusiasts Club - of which he is one of 600 members world wide. "The great thing is being able to have access to spares," he said.
Although he has always undertaken rebuilds in his own workshop he was employed by Jack Squirrel for seven years as manager of a workshop that produced and installed special purpose machinery. Until Jack's company was taken over, that is. "I didn't like the way the new people worked so I went back to being self employed and picked up where I had left off," he said. "The work I do usually means setting a price at the outset with payment coming along only when it is completed and running right," he said. "Luckily I do have a regular, reliable clientele. There is a tendency for people to bring me a box of bits and ask me to make a machine for them. It was not all that long ago that I did just that with a four valve Rudge for John Ruth." Owen Greenwood, of controversial Mini three-wheeler fame, was also a customer a couple of years back.
As an example of Mervyn's high standards, a four-valve 250 Rudge rebuilt by him in 1984 did not need attention until a few weeks ago despite having completed four parade laps of the Isle of Man course and being raced on the continent by Peter Marriott.
Mervyn's main race machine branded the number one bike by his already enthusiastic son, features a standard road bike frame and forks with 19 inch wheels. "Most of the major frame parts and fork components are, as original although it is permissible to strengthen engine plates and use gusseting on the front forks" said Mervyn. "The original tanks were prone to split so I use a 125 Honda pressed steel one. The engine is basically a road bike unit which had the same dimensions as the race engine with the bore and stroke and internal parts common. The mag drive however, is from the camshaft on the race engine so that the magneto speed is kept down. The barrel and head are cast iron, as the racers were in 1934." Mervyn explained that only a handful of the works bikes with bronze heads were produced. "Just three or four were made and in fact I had to work on one for Dave McMahon who has restored a number of Rudges," he said.
The major incentive for Mervyn returning to action in 1987 was his determination to win the 250 cc Vintage championship with a pre-war Rudge. From August of that year until March, 1988 the normal daily pattern was to work on the engine until one or two in the morning.
The bore and stroke remains the same with Rudge steel forged flywheels from a road bike that are made from the same material as those used in the race engines, and a Rudge con rod. Stratford made his own camshaft which he milled and filed. "I wanted it to be softer than the originals so that I could get the tuning I wanted with reliability. The originals were inclined to break," he said. Cosworth BDA aluminium valves cut down onto a K965 inlet are part of the specification, as are Terry original 350 Rudge springs and a BTH racing mag. Pistons used are Hepolite, TIG welded and re profiled by Mervyn so that he can get the crown shape required. The plug is an RL Lodge of which he still has ample supplies. The main bearing is a special, only available through the Club. The gearbox is close ratio and surprisingly Mervyn got someone else to cut the gears for it!
For the last three seasons the engine has been run on 'dope' with the compression ratio up in to the thirteen's. "It transformed the engine which now produces 27bhp at the rear wheel compared to 24bhp when it was run on petrol" he said. A great help at the time was the late Leon Moss who allowed Mervyn to use his dyno. "Half a day on that in 1987 and I got an extra brake horsepower straight away," he said. "I know this can be done on the track but that takes a long time and anyway, five or ten minutes on a brake at full load results in far less wear on the engine parts." The engine produces maximum power at 7600rpm, which drops off after 8000rpm - although he considers it safe to rev as high as 8500rpm.
Since 1988 the machine has covered 600 racing miles with no major problems and Mervyn has won the pre-1934 championship three times. This year he added the 250 cc championship as well. Mainly used as a back-up machine is the number two mount, basically the remnants of the other one. Despite the cycle parts being the same he finds the handling of the number one machine to be more satisfactory, mainly, he feels, because the profile on the front tyre is slightly flatter.
Stratford has been working on 'number two' (which has an engine built in 1973) for about eight years. He once ran it in a TT parade lap and was 33rd fastest although it was missing at the top end. Despite this it showed 7500rpm on the rev counter on the Sulby Straight while pulling a 5.7:1 top gear at 8000rpm which translates to 106 mph. And it was running on petrol. "On the run down the Mountain the top speed would have been around 112mph," he said.
Although most of his racing exploits have been on the Rudge, Mervyn has sampled several other makes of machine. He raced Don Daley's Mark 7 Velocette four or five times and also managed to crash it. "I also raced Jack Squirrel's mighty Cotton Blackburne quite a lot in 1979 but gave in after crashing and breaking two bones in my spine, a collarbone at Cadwell and chopping off a finger in a tumble at Donington," he said. "I got some pressure from the missus to pack up racing it and I must admit it was a handful," he added. "I like to be in full control, and that was not the case for a lot of the time on that particular machine." The 'missus' in question is Caralynne who is just as enthusiastic about vintage racing as her husband. She has only missed two meetings since they were married, once when their now year-old daughter Kathy was born, and the other at Pembrey this year. "She really is the backbone of the team," admitted Mervyn. "She times every lap of practice and racing and that kind of feedback is so essential to make sure that not just the power of the machine is right, but also that the gear changes and braking points are correct. Caralynne also makes sure that everything we need is in the van and that lunch is ready! In fact she does ever thing except race the machine.
For the last ten years Mervyn has also been working on a TT Replica Rudge which has a cable operated steering damper and a 'far too heavy frame'. "Getting parts for this machine is a real problem," he said. "That's why progress is slow.'" The machine is a copy of Graham Walker's 1931 TT winning machine and similar to the one that Charlie Manders took to third place in the Lightweight TT two years later. Although they were works bikes they were not Replicas. "The Replica was not really competitive," said Mervyn. "At 275 lbs they are overweight and certainly much heavier than the winning works bikes." A fourth machine is also on show at the splendid Mervyn Stratford Rudge sanctuary. 'Emily' is a road going machine that has been used as a test bed for the racers since 1967. In addition the array of machine parts would certainly be the envy of any Rudge enthusiast. "There is enough here to build another three machines," said Mervyn. Whether he gets the time to build them is another story.
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