Ryder Notes: The Image of a Racer
by julian ryder, back home in the uk now, thanks
Tuesday, April 07, 2009

AJS racer Bill Doran at the season-opening GP in '52. The pirate smile of a racer.
image: thanks, Stuart Dent
Bored of the credit crunch? Bored of counting how many Kawasakis there will be on the MotoGP grid? Me too. Thankfully I have been occupying my time researching pictures for an upcoming book on the history of the GPs. When you go back to the late 1940s and early '50s it is really quite difficult to find images you haven't seen before. So when Stuart Dent, an itinerant old car racer friend, told me he had acquired the archive of a German company and there were some bike pics in it I was hopeful of finding something unusual.

I was not disappointed; lots of NSUs with weird aluminum fairings, bad haircuts, black leathers and pudding basin helmets; but one photo in particular leapt out at me from a welter of beautiful fine-grained black-and-white. It showed a racer on the grid looking over his shoulder at the camera. He looked like you want a racer to look, scuffed leathers and all. Unfortunately very few of the photos were captioned so serious detective work was necessary. There was the AJS logo on the helmet - so was this the first ever world 500cc champion Les Graham? I asked his son Stuart, himself a GP winner. It wasn't his dad, but Stuart knew who it was: Bill Doran, after whom Doran's Bend on the Isle of Man TT course is named. A little more research and we knew it was taken on the grid for the opening GP of the 1952 season at Berne in Switzerland.

Now whenever you meet old racers the first thing you notice is that their wives are strong, capable, impressive women, and sure enough the impeccably turned out and razor-sharp Mrs Doran fitted the pattern.
That should have been the end of the story, but this is an image that you don't forget in a hurry. At a charity evening in February I described it to James Whitham. 'Does he have a devil-may-care look on his face?' said a grinning Whit through a haze of gin and tonic, before adding somberly 'You bloody had to then.' That was it, that was what this racer's image was telling me. This man knows the risks, he knows what could happen, and he doesn't give a monkey's. There's no tension in the picture, no fear, just the look of a man who knows what he's doing.

One of Honda's first stars, Tommy Robb, told me during a drinks break at the same event that there was a German photographer in the '50s who took nothing but portraits, the photo could be his work. Returning from the bar I noticed a name on the reserved seating: Mrs Peggy Doran.

Sure enough it was the widow of the man himself, and accompanied by her daughter Jayne and granddaughter Emilie. Now whenever you meet old racers the first thing you notice is that their wives are strong, capable, impressive women, and sure enough the impeccably turned out and razor-sharp Mrs Doran fitted the pattern. The good news was that the photo was indeed of Bill and the family had not seen it before. Jayne has his Tissot watch with '1952 Grand Prix Suisse Berne' engraved on the back which he must have won on the day the photo was taken.

Bill Doran won two GPs, the 1949 Belgian 500 at Spa and the 1951 Dutch TT at Assen, both on AJS. At Spa he nipped past the Gilera of Artesian on the last corner of the last lap to win by a fifth of a second, causing the Italian to stamp on his goggles in frustration in parc ferme. His best championship finish was second in the 350s behind Geoff Duke in 1951. In 1950 he crashed at speed on the Isle of Man and broke his leg, the corner in question was thereafter known as Doran's Bend. Bill was immensely proud of the fact that he was the only living person to have a section of the Mountain Circuit named after him.

Bill Doran retired from racing after a crash in France and married Peggy. He had been adamant that motorcycle racing was not a job for a family man. 'We lost so many friends,' says Peggy. The death of his old AJS team-mate Les Graham particularly affected him.

Bill opened a bike shop with long-time AJS engineer Matt Wright—Peggy thinks he's the guy with his hands on his hips on the left of the picture. Apparently going for a test ride on the pillion was not for the faint hearted.

After Bill died, Peggy and Jayne continued to run the shop with a Yamaha franchise. I wouldn't have liked to be a male customer assuming that the distaff side couldn't tell a fork leg from a piston ring.

The last word goes to Jayne. 'He was a lovely man, very popular rider, hysterically funny and a magic father.' But you knew that from the photo, didn't you?


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