"THE STRATFORD RUDGES"
Racer test from "Classic Racer", Spring 1991, By John Ruth
Vintage racers, being generally a breed apart, have a long tradition of taking the most unlikely and seemingly unfashionable marques and turning them into winners. Steve Lyndsell with the Royal Enfield, Colin Daly's humble Norton Model 50 and Derek Pollard's pre war Tiger 70 for instance - three prime examples of what can be achieved from 'lesser' machinery.
THE 250 four valve Rudge, however, is a completely different horse. It had earned its reputation in the winners enclosure long before vintage motor racing was envisaged by founder VMCC member Titch Allen all those 40 odd years ago. Hardly surprising, then, that the Coventry built bike has become a favourite amongst serious vintage racing exponents. This was the view held by Mervyn Stratford when he first took to the tarmac in 1968, a view that holds true today, 24 long years later. Mervyn has stayed true to Rudges during that time and is still finishing first under the flag, often in front of one-off specials and bikes decades younger.
Stratford claims his brace of Rudges are still very much all Rudge, and this is no idle boast but a plain fact. But then Mervyn is a matter of fact person, letting the results do the talking. It was his infectious enthusiasm for the 250 Rudge that prompted me to acquire one a decade ago, only mine was a two valver and never quite seemed to be in the same league. The flying Stratford always disappeared into the distance at the start of each race, not to be seen again until in the paddock after wards where he would patiently explain in detail what I must do to improve my Rapid. It was to no avail. All too often I tried to compensate for my inadequate attempts to make it faster in a straight line by going faster around the bendy bits. This (unsurprisingly) sometimes led to the Rudge and me parting company, resulting in much burnt midnight oil straightening it out before another do-or-die sortie. Mind you, I did once pass Mervyn going into Clearways at Brands in the rain - trouble was, the Rudge was 15 feet behind me! That was I think, the only time we got by the Stratford 250 and it is still one of my ambitions to one day do it while seated on the bike.
SO, when editor Bob suggested testing Mervyn's bikes as a follow-up to his interview in the last issue I jumped at the chance. Not only did Mervyn let me ride the number one, methanol burning racer, but also the petrol burning version. This test would close quite a few questions previously left open in the back of my mind. The two 1934 Rudges are the epitome of marque development. Mervyn has spent the last 23 years squeezing every last ounce of performance out of what is, after all, a 60 year-old design. In doing so he has acquired an understanding of the 62.5 x 81 mm four valve 250, deeper than any other single source - including Rudge themselves. Side by side in the Mallory paddock it was almost impossible to tell the two Rudges apart. The most visible difference is the long torque arm on the front brake of the number one bike along with the Rudge-type spoke lacing. The tendency for the two bikes to play Tweedledum and Tweedledee has led to confusion in the past so, (after a couple of early cases of mistaken identity by myself and photographer Pete) it was decided to call them Dopey (for methanol) and Four Star (for petrol) during our test session.
Four Star had the first airing so while the oil was being warmed up I made a closer inspection of the bikes, both of them built to 1934 specifications. Roadster based frames are used as well as girder forks with no extra bracing. Careful attention has been given to the tolerances of the fork spindles and all moving parts. Both have 19 inch wheels with a racing Dunlop Triangular on the front and a Metzeler ME99 on the rear. These are normally used as a front tyre and so have to be run in the reverse direction of tread pattern on the rear wheel. A standard 6 3/4 inch single leading shoe Rudge drum brake is used on the rear but a Mk.VIII Velocette 6 3/4 inch SLS drum is employed up front - with a shrunk-on cooling muff which falls within VMCC rules. Rudge close ratio gearboxes and four plate clutches are used in both motorcycles. The engines look identical with BTH racing magnetos, which run at half engine speed, providing the sparks. Electronic ignition has been tried in the quest for ultimate performance but has since been discarded for the original fitment. Just what cam profiles and valve timing are favoured in each engine, Mervyn would not say. Amal TT carbs are used on Dopey and Four Star. A large one on Four Star and a very large one on Dopey, as Mervyn explained wryly. The twin straight exhaust pipes terminate just level with the footrest, with Dopey using a slightly larger pipe size than its petrol burning brother.
SURPRISINGLY both Rudges still sport the left foot gear change, right foot brake pedal they had in 1934 but this proved no inconvenience as I settled into a few familiarisation laps. These were sorely needed after a season of racing later classic mounts with rear suspension and streamlining. The step back into a rigid frame, girder fork time warp called for initial caution until I acclimatised to the hard ride, light weight and compactness of a bike with a wheelbase of 52 inches and an all-up weight of just 217 lbs.
The overall feedback was of being very much as one with the bike. The slightest body movement or change of seating position had an instant effect on the handling so Mervyn's tucked in, wrap-around riding style must pay dividends during races. And with no fairing to hide behind a neat a tidy style is essential in order to extract every ounce of performance from the buzzing little 250. Once I began to dial into the action I found it could be ridden flat out just about everywhere. Just one drop down to third for the Lakes Esses was all that was required to give plenty of drive up to the Hair pin before going down the `box in to first gear. The ratio proved just about right for a hard drive out on full noise before snicking up to second for the bus stop chicane where the light and precise handling really came into its own. Exiting the Devils Elbow, a quick change up to third halfway down the drop sent me buzzing across the start line before hitting top while crouched behind the rev counter. It was then a full bore approach to Gerrards before dropping down a cog and driving hard over the ripples of the seemingly never-ending right hander by the seat of your pants and flat against the stop. This manoeuvre was just about possible providing Four Star didn't shake its head too much but after one particularly hectic few seconds, when the front end patter got out of hand, I eventually decided to give it best and roll it off just a crumb. This proved a slightly slower but much more predictable way of circulating.
Four Star really did prove a lot of fun to ride and I reluctantly came back into the paddock where Mervyn was warming up Dopey for me. "It turns out another 3.4 bhp," he said with a glint in his eye, and with the final instruction to rev it hard still ringing in my ears, off I went. Not only do both bikes look identical, but initially they feel identical. Until I really started to tramp on, that is. Like most singles running on methanol the throttle tends to be like a switch, with power either on or off. The extra power of the wood alcohol guzzler only really showed itself when riding at full tilt, whereupon the little racer really came into its own. The tendency for the front end to skip out over Gerrards' ripples was almost non-existent on Dopey - its only negative trait being a tendency for the carburation to go flat on the exit. This could be partially counteracted by slightly pumping the throttle just before it occurred. Mervyn puts this down to a mixture of fuel starvation and the Channel Tunnel-like choke size of the large carburettor. The more I rode Dopey the more fun it became to ride on the limit, where it shows its true character. Mallory only tests the braking once a lap at the hairpin but the Velo front brake was up to the job and far superior to the standard 250 Rudge item which can fade dramatically. The AM4 linings in the front and AM2 in the rear must be a general improvement but the vintage racer's adage that brakes only slow you down may well be more appropriate in this case.
The Stratford Rudges finished the day oil tight and in one piece, No more than you would expect from a man who eats, sleeps and breathes Rudges and whose enthusiasm can prove infectious. He certainly had my mind working along the lines of resurrecting my own 250 for another crack at one of the more consistently competitive vintage classics. Then, on second thoughts, 25 years of development, not to mention Mervyn Stratford's dual accomplishments as both engineer and rider would, I think, be something of a tall order to equal.
By John Ruth