The History Of Motocross
The following details were very kindly supplied by Bryan, Managing Editor of Racer X Illustrated / Road Racer X in the USA. You can check out there website here – www.racerxonline.com – its updated on a daily basis with loads of interviews, bike reviews, race results and photos and covers the AMA racing, both motocross and supercross, in the states.
Racer X Investigation: The First Motocross Race
“A Rare Old Scramble on Camberley Heath”
Motocross was born at the Southern Scott Scramble in March of 1924
By Bryan Stealey
The answer to one question about the history of motocross has long escaped students of the sport: When was the first race? British motocross legend Jeff Smith once said that the details of this monumental event had been ” lost in the mist of time.” According to renowned French moto journalist Xavier Audouard, “the FIM [Federation International Motocyliste] doesn’t even know where or when motocross started.” There have been numerous hypotheses about the origins of the sport: that it was started in the wastelands of Western Europe by unemployed soldiers after World War I; that men testing new British motorcycles began racing one another on closed off-road courses behind their factory north of London; that French postal workers on motorcycles challenged each other to match races after work; that 1920s-era flat track and soon-to-be-outlawed board-track racers in America took to the countryside.
What we do know is that the first FIM sanctioned world championship of motocross took place in 1947. We also know that the name “moto cross” originated in France. But the very birth of the sport – the first race – was never fully determined.
Or was it? Upon looking into the history of motocross, we discovered a common passage in a series of old motorcycle publications about an off-road race, with no observed trials sections, that took place outside of London in the early 1920s. Because it was the first of its kind, modern-day reports on the event were few, and many of them contained conflicting information. So the search was on to find out more about this first meeting from surviving family members of the participants, local libraries and club historians, even a journey to England – and to the very land on which the race was held – to search for clues.
Finally, after months of research, the mystery of where and how our sport began was finally solved. Motocross, as it would later come to be known, began as “a rare old scrambles on Camberley Heath” in England on the 29th of March, 1924.
Motorcycle enthusiasts were riding off-road for years before the Southern Scott Scramble in ’24. At first, it had nothing to do with competition; the roads were simply poor in many places – non-existent in others – and riders had to get from point A to point B by any means necessary. Eventually, more experienced riders developed a propensity for “rough riding,” and clubs started to hold the first trials events. In the spring of 1914, the now-famous Scott Trial was born, thanks to the ingenuity of Alfred Angus Scott, owner and founder of the Scott Engineering Company. Originally a kind of company outing for the employees of the Scott motorcycle manufacturer, the Scott Trial was organized on the open Yorkshire moors in Northern England, and was comprised of bogs, rocks and stream crossings. There was a time element in the competition, but there were observed sections as well. The winner was the man who came out best in the two combined categories. (At the time, Scott motorcycles were much better known for their success in TT racing at the Isle of Man.) In August of that same year, the focus of motorcycle manufacturers like Scott shifted from competition to battle as the first shots were fired in World War I. Motorcycles gained much prominence during this conflict because of their ability to transport troops over rough terrain and to carry
machine-gunners in side-cars. Also, wireless communication was virtually non-existent, and the use of motorcycles in information dispatch greatly improved intelligence and overall communication.
While some riding troops were recruited through ads places in The Motor Cycle magazine, most were new to motorcycling, and, for that matter, to motorized vehicles of any kind. They learned on military-issue P&Ms, Scotts, Indians, BSA’s, Norton’s and Sunbeams, speeding along dubious roads deeply indented with shell-holes, through deep, sticky mud, and up and down treacherously steep inclines. Vast improvements were made on motorcycles as a result of these perilous conditions, and legions of new motorcycle enthusiasts were born.
The war was over in late 1918, and by 1919 the British motorcycle industry was finished with military production and was preparing to return to normal business. They found that business was anything but normal. Thousands of servicemen had learned to ride during the war and wanted bikes of their own (and were willing to spend their hard-earned war gratuities to get them). To meet demand, supply needed to increase dramatically. Well over 100 British motorcycle manufacturers rose to the occasion, some established and some previously unknown, beginning a two-year Golden Age of British motorcycling.
Bikes were expensive – four times the cost of the pre-war level – but they sold remarkably well. Soon, though, unemployment became a major problem, and military earnings ran dry. A flooded market and high prices couldn’t be maintained. Almost as quickly as it had started, the honeymoon was over; only the most skilled and determined manufacturers would survive the slump. Of course, some of them did. By 1923, sales in Britain were on the rise again. Thousands of people had motorcycles, and membership levels in clubs were at an all-time high. Enthusiasts of the day were looking for new and exciting ways to compete aboard their newly-acquired steeds. One club in southern England – in Camberley, more specifically – had a big idea on the verge of fruition.
By the early ’20s the Scott Trial had achieved widespread infamy. The most skillful trials riders in Northern England attended the annual event, helping to build the north’s reputation for having the toughest courses and the best riders. Club members from the south took exception to that belief. They thought their riders were just a good (or better), their terrain just as tough (or tougher). According to legend, Ilkley Club member G.G. Kitson boasted to E.O. Spence, the honorary secretary of the Camberley club, that the northerners could smoke the south on the rough stuff. “You haven’t a tithe of the tough lads we possess in Yorkshire,” challenged Kitson. The Ilkley Club agreed to send some of its best members to compete in the south on the condition that an equal number of southerners would make the trip north for the Scott Trial. Then and there, Spence set in motion arrangements for the “Southern Scott Trial.” This event would differ from its northern counterpart in one major way: there would be no observed sections. The only thing that would matter was who finished with the fastest time. The Motor Cycle, the top British bike publication of the day, reported:” Camberley has overcome the bugbear of the average trial in a masterly way: there are no regulations, no observed hills, and at least two and a half hours are allowed for lunch. Competitors may do what they please – foot, foot-slog, or attach themselves to the end of a tow-rope. He who gets home first wins.”
And that’s how the sport was born: This deletion of all observed sections for the first time was the distinction that made the new event the sire of modern motocross racing. A problem arose as soon as the proposed event was submitted to the Autocycle Union (ACU, England’s equivalent of the AMA) for sanctioning. Because the event would not contain observed sections, it could not be called a trial – nor given a sanction – unless it were run under another moniker. When ideas for a new name were being tossed about, one club member reputedly stated, “Whatever we call it, it will be a rare old scramble!” Hence, “scrambling” was born. The new event would be called the Southern Scott Scramble.
The Southern Scott Scramble was to be held in the vicinity of Camberley Heath and Bagshot Heath, located in the sleepy London “suburb” of Camberley. The heath was mainly crown-owned land ordinarily used for cavalry exercises and tank drills. A considerable buzz circulated throughout the area, and come race day – Saturday, March 29, 1924 – a crowd that reportedly numbered in the thousands showed up to watch this strange new competition. Most competitors arrived early in the morning aboard the very machines on which they would compete (after removing the more breakable parts, like headlights). They registered and paid their entry fees (all of the proceeds went to St. Dunstan’s Hostel for the Blind).
Generating the most attention of all the riders by far was George Dance, a British motorcycling legend from the north who was, for some reason, riding as a southerner. Dance was widely considered to be the best motorcycle rider in the world at the time, and because of the records he’d set in the past at numerous speed trial events, he was also considered to be a heavy favorite in Camberley.
There was also talk about extrovert Gus Kuhn, a Velocette rider who was very familiar with the Camberley Heath. The previous year he had won a Camberley club-promoted speed hill climb there aboard a single with a tireless, studded rear wheel. On this day he would stick with tires. Then there was Frank Dean, the fastest northern team member of all the entrants. Dean must be considered the first full-factory rider ever in the sport of motocross: The day before the race, he picked up a brand new 350cc Four-Valve Four-Speed direct from the Rudge factory. In those days, breaking in a motorcycle was extremely important, so many felt the new ride would cause some problems for the popular rider. Some of the local fans had their eyes on hometown hero Arthur Sparks, a motorcycle mechanic and active member of the Camberley club.
He had built up quite a reputation for himself by becoming the first rider to ever make it to the top of Kiliminjaro, one of the more menacing hills on the heath. He spent World War I in the Royal Flying Corps, which very regularly utilized the 3 3/4 twin-cylinder two-stroke Scott (w/ sidecar) as machine-gun carriers. It’s thought that Sparks probably gained his motorcycle skills, not to mention his affinity for Scott motorcycles, during the war. As a result of his years of riding up and down the Camberly hills, Sparks knew the territory well; he would be tough to beat. It was a cool morning, and since there hadn’t been much rain in the days leading up to the race, it was also extremely dry. Because of the temperature, many of the riders donned the long, leather riding coats that were so popular in those days, not realizing that keeping warm would be the least of their concerns. Safety equipment was at a minimum. Most riders wore leather gloves, their large cuffs making them look like today’s ” fireman gloves.”
Although there were a couple of different kinds of helmets available – mainly leather, but some made with a hard shell – they were considered a breach of style, and most riders chose to simply wear cloth caps. Some riders wore rubber goggles, fitted with glass lenses that had a tendency to shatter upon impact. Motorcycle legging akin to fishing hip-waders was available at the time, but because of the dry conditions, none of the riders chose to wear them. The scramble would consist of two stages. After a 25-mile lap in the morning, the riders would break at nearby Frimley for an extended lunch, and then line up for a second 25-mile lap. (Even in those days there were two motos!) The trail itself was closer to what we now know as cross country racing than it was to modern motocross. It was marked with red powder, arrows and the occasional flag, though at times it was extremely difficult to navigate. Each loop was replete with a wide variety of terrain, including hills, bogs, uncharted tracks across moorland heather and ditches, and water splashes, which, according to the report from The Motor Cycle, “by reason respectively of their slimy surface, glutinous nature, or depth, only a lucky rider negotiates successfully.” It was going to be a long day on Camberley Heath.
Riders lined up for the start in their predetermined order. There would be a one-minute interval in between each man’s start, and the fastest aggregate time between the two laps would win. The course started out with a brief straight, which was immediately followed by a steep hillclimb. The first rider to leave the line was E.J. Burt, who didn’t even make it to the hill before cementing his place in history as motocross’ first DNF, with a broken chain. And he didn’t have the worst luck; of 89 total entries, nine riders didn’t even make it to the starting line, thanks to one mechanical ailment or another. The first hill was somewhat intimidating to many of the starters, but it proved to be a mere appetizer for what was to come. Soon the riders came upon narrow goat tracks, sandy and rough hillsides, trackless commons, sudden sharp turns, gouging tank trails and diagonal decents of “1 in 1″ (one foot out and one foot down, or a 45-degree angle) – and this was all
before the first major hill: Wild and Woolly.
Wild and Woolly was about 200 yards long and extremely steep, so naturally it was the first point of interest to which the spectators flocked. The track up the face of the hill was a narrow slit through brushwood and thicket, and any deviation from the path meant disaster. It would be the first place to witness mass mayhem. Most of the riders had trouble getting up Wild and Woolly and required the” fishing line,” a rope that spectators used to pull riders up the hill while other spectators pushed from behind. According to The Motor Cycle, “The effort required to overcome the gradient was so great that the reaction of the driving torque lifted front wheels clean of the ground. George Dance, for instance, seemed to proceed for yards at a time with the front wheel lifted several inches.”
He, along with the other stars of the day, cleared the hill without help, generating oohs and ahhs from onlookers with their ” feet on rests” style, a carryover from their trials expertise. The course implemented three other hills comparable to Wild and Woolly, some nearly a foot deep in heather, the second most ominous being Red Road Hill. Motor Cycling magazine described this hill as “resembling a grass-grown slagheap in general appearance; so sudden is the change from flat to gradient that it looks like some giant eruption on the face of nature.” Once again the stars of the day cleared the hill stylishly, as did R.B. Budd, an A.J.S.-mounted Southerner who would finish sixth on the day. According to The Motor Cycle, “Near the summit [Budd’s] front wheel reared fully eighteen inches in the air, but he kept to his course, and did not land the wrong way around.”
Some of the less-experienced riders made successful climbs, only to be dropped by a troublesome ridge at the top of Red Road Hill. They also had to deal with the dilemma of whether or not to try to keep their feet on their rests. Still accustomed to trials competition, some made every attempt to climb stylishly, even at the expense of speed. The hills, however, were much easier to climb quickly – there was little chance of reaching the tops slowly and surely.
The other named hills were Kiliminjaro and Devil’s Drop, the latter of which had been known to host hill-climbs in the past. Both caused considerable trouble for some riders, but came as bit of a break to others. This is because they weren’t nearly as rough or unpredictable as the level stretches through the heath and the harrowing descents that immediately followed the climbs. From The Motor Cycle: “Steep short hills and steeper and shorter descents added to the general impression the riders got that it was simply a bad dream and that shortly they would wake up. But there was not time to think, or – ugh! That was a nasy one! – the awakening would be in hospital.” According to a journalist of the era known only as “Tangent,” who participated in the event for the benefit of his race coverage, “I was very frightened, but if I shut my eyes going up [the hills] I had to open them pretty widely at the top, for getting down again was a much more
complicated business, calling for close concentration on the trail ahead.”
The bikes of the day – Scott, Sunbeam, Rudge, Henderson, A.J.S., Triumph, Norton, Harley-Davidson, Zenith, A.B.C., Montgomery Bradshaw and Velocette among them – were typically equipped with two or three gears.
Seventy-five percent of the course demanded middle or low gear, with the remaining 25 percent – dirt trails through woods and across a common – allowing the riders to switch into high gear. Some of the long stretches smoothed out in places, and the more daring participants were able to make up time by reportedly exceeding 50 miles per hour (this with inferior suspension and virtually no safety equipment).
It seems a minor miracle that no participants did wake up “in hospital.” As if the course weren’t difficult enough, one incident during the morning lap proved devastating to the results of many of the participants. The day prior to the race, a tank performing testing exercises accidentally removed a race arrow that marked the course, causing some of the riders to lose their way. Among the errant riders was George Dance, and the mistake would cost him dearly. In the afternoon, the course was somewhat easier to follow, thanks to the trail of various bike parts and riding gear that littered the perimeter of the track. Although mechanical trouble was widespread, particularly affecting gears, chains, brakes, forks and footrests, the engines, for the most part, were up to the task.
To many, this proved the widely held idea that British motorcycle engines were the best in the world. In the end, 40 of the 80 starters would finish the Southern Scott Scramble. The winner was local man Arthur Sparks, whose knowledge of the heath allowed him to avoid the misdirected route caused by the downed race arrow and complete the 50 miles unfailingly. (“With wheelspin, it was more like 100 [miles],” he would joke later.) His aggregate finish time was two hours, one minute, and 51 seconds – almost nine minutes ahead of second-place George Dance – and his average speed was nearly 25 mph. The premier award, the Burnett Cup, went to the hometown underdog. It was presented to him by Mrs. Spence, wife of the event’s organizer and our sport’s first-ever trophy girl. George Dance took home the prize for Best Southerner (besides Sparks, of course), and Rudge factory man Frank Dean was declared Best Northerner, finishing two minutes behind Dance. His finish would result in the first win ad ever. The northerner’s opinion of the event? “The course is dubbed the worst freak course of the year and lay entirely over rough moorland,” he said, “and included the steepest hill [Wild and Woolly] I have ever seen.”
There were even some “comic prize” winners. W. Julian received a bottle of Stickphast – a type of glue – for falling the most times. The “Showing the Most Spirit” award went to Gus Kuhn. Although the top two finishes were turned in by southerners, the 12 northerners who made the trip had a better average time. Nobody conceded, and the debate over which region produced the best riders raged on. The event was considered a major success by competitors, spectators and journalists alike.
Scrambling was quickly recognized as the next big thing on both sides of the English Channel. The French seized the new form of motorcycling and gave it a slight makeover, shortening the tracks and adding laps and a few man-made obstacles like jumps.
They also changed the name to “moto-cross” – a combination of “motorcycle” and “cross-country.” Throughout the following years scrambling would evolve in England, as well. Due to a shortage of available moor land, English tracks also grew shorter over the years, so instead of running a couple of laps over large expanses of land as they had at the first Southern Scott Scramble, the races would consist of more, shorter laps.
Different British clubs promoted scrambles, and soon the rest of the world caught on. By 1947, the FIM was finally ready to recognize the sport with the first Motocross des Nations, which was held in Wassenaar, Holland. The rest, as they say, is history. As for Camberley Heath, it remains very similar to how it was 78 years ago. There is the occasional housing development or chain restaurant in the vicinity, but for the most part, it’s still wide-open land in the control of the government. The majority of the property is owned and administered by the UK’s Ministry of Defense and, like it was in 1924, is used for military testing.
The land hosts enduro events and trials competitions, and a long walk through the area uncovered a BMX track and a basic motocross track, not to mention occasional race arrows, tear-offs, and other signs of recent motorcycle action. To this day, the Burnett Cup is probably the holy grail of motocross collectibles. The Sparks family is unfamiliar with its whereabouts. Six months of searching for it only produced a photo. Maybe a long-lost descendant of Arthur Sparks has it sitting atop a fireplace mantle somewhere…. Or perhaps it has simply been lost in the mist of time.
The Southern Scott Scramble
March 29, 1924
Top 10 Results
A.B. Sparks (Scott)
George Dance (Sundance)
Frank Dean (Rudge)
H. Langman (Scott)
F.J.R. Heath (Henderson)
R.B. Budd (A.J.S.)
B. Johnson (Norton)
P.L.B. Wills (Harley-Davidson)
W. Clough (Scott)
Premier Award – Burnett Cup and Castrol Prize: Arthur Sparks
Cup for best Northerner’s performance: Frank Dean
Cup for best Southerner’s performance: George Dance
Cup for best 250cc performance: C. Harman
Cup for best 250-600cc performance: Rex B. Budd
Cup for best over 600cc performance: P.L.B. Wills
Cup for best two-stroke performance: Harry Langman
Cup for best American machine performance: F.J.R. Heath
Team Prize: Wallington No. 1
Team Prize Runners-up: Ilkley M.C.C.
Trade Team Prize: Scott team
Carrick, P. (1969). Motor Cycle Racing. The Hamlyn Publishing Group.
Carroll, J. (2001). The Complete British Motorcycle: The Classics from
to the Present. MBI Publishing.
Collins, P. (1998). British Motorcycles Since 1900. Ian Allen
Clew, J. (1974). The Scott Motorcycle. The Haynes Publishing Group.
The Motor Cycle (magazine), March 6th, 1924.
The Motor Cycle, March 27th, 1924.
The Motor Cycle, April 3, 1924.
The Motor Cycle, April 10, 1924.
The Motor Cycle, May 1, 1924.
Motor Cycling (magazine), April 2, 1924.
Personal interview with Dave Hull (friend of Arthur Sparks), April 17,
Personal interview with John Sparks, April 16, 2001
Personal interview with Ralph Venables, August 12, 2001
Rivola, L. (1977). Racing Motorcycles. Rand McNally.
Trials and Motocross News, May 1994
Surrey Advertiser (newspaper), April 5, 1924
Walker, M. (1960). Book of Motor Cycle Racing. Stanley Paul and Co.,
Wilson, Hugo. (1995). The Encyclopedia of the Motorcycle. DK
I’d like to thank the following people and organizations for their help with this project: Matt Allard, Duncan Smith and Ray Kennard for putting me up and joining in on the hunt; Mark Mederski and the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum; Annice Collett and the Vintage Motorcycle Club; Sean Lawless, Allison Galloway, and Duncan Spokes for pointing me in the right direction; Ralph Venables; Justine Pearson and Mary Bennett of the Surrey County Council; Mary Bennett and the Surrey Heath Museum; Craig, John and Maddie of The Dog Pub for the Guinness Extra Cold; Jane Skayman of Mortons Motorcycle Media for help with photos; Whitehorse Press for having an excellent selection of motorcycle books; National Rentals for upgrading me to a Mercedes for free; Johnny Arms for not beating up me and Allard; John Sparks for telling me everything he could remember about his father; and finally Dave Hull, who passed away the day after I spoke with him in Camberley. Godspeed, Mr. Hull.
Thanks Bryan for letting us add this to our site, I am sure many people will find it of great interest.