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Jimmie Guthrie win European Grand Prix 1935

Jimmie Guthrie

Photo courtesy of Hawick Museum

For a modest-sized town, Hawick has produced more than its fair share of sporting stars: sailor Sir Chay Blyth, Scotland rugby star Jim Renwick and the motorcycling hero Steve Hislop are all from the Borders town. But in terms of UK and international success, no-one can compete with the achievements of 1930s motorcycling star Jimmie Guthrie. His story is remarkable.

Jimmie Guthrie was born in Hawick on 23 May 1897. On leaving school he became an apprentice engineer with a local firm. He joined the Border Battalion of the 4th King's Own Scottish Borderers and on his 18th birthday headed off to the horrors of Gallipoli and the Great War. In a dreadful accident, 215 men were killed just miles from home, when their troop train collided with a goods train at Gretna and was subsequently hit by an express. Guthrie did not return to Hawick until the war ended, a gruelling tour of duty that took in Turkey, Egypt, Palestine and the Western Front in France.

It was in France that he became a dispatch rider and it is surely there that he developed his skills in handling motorcycles. After the war, Jimmie and his brother Archie joined the Hawick Motorcycle Club and took part in hill climbs and racing on grass tracks. Jimmie established himself as a promising rider, and the club, recognising his potential, put him forward for his first Isle of Man TT race in 1923. Sadly, his bike failed him in that Junior race (up to 350cc) but he went on to achieve great success on the island in later years, winning six times.

Articles that have been written on Guthrie over the years describe him as a sincere, quiet, generous and humble man. Once on a motorcycle, though, Guthrie was a formidable figure.

The curator of Hawick Museum, Richard White, talks of Guthrie being known for driving at speed in the roads around the town. “When the weather allowed,” White says, “he would get up early for a practice ride down to Keswick in the Lake District and be back in time for work in the motor business he and his brother ran in the town's High Street. He was a teetotaller and had a real sense of self-discipline.”

Jimmie Guthrie in the 1927 TT race

Photo courtesy of Bob McIntyre family

In his early career Guthrie rode New Hudson and AJS bikes, and from 1931-1937 he was part of the Norton team. His first national victories came in 1926 and 1927 at the Scottish Speed Championships at St Andrews. For the next ten years he would become one of the greatest motorcycle racers in Europe. In 1930 he achieved his first of six Isle of Man TT titles, winning the Lightweight Race title on an AJS; in 1934 he won the Junior and Senior race.

In 1933 Jimmie Guthrie won the 350 Belgian Grand Prix, the 350 Spanish Grand Prix and the 500 Spanish Grand Prix. From 1927-1935 in races on the Continent and in the UK he was almost always winner or runner-up. Indeed, in 1935 alone he won the Swiss, Dutch, German, Belgian and Spanish Grand Prix races, a series of victories that made him European Champion that year. At the Dutch race in Assen, Guthrie covered the 259 mile course in fractionally under three hours, an average of 85.9 mph.

Jimmie Guthrie

Photo courtesy of Castrol

In the mid-1930s Guthrie clocked up a number of world speed records at the concrete bowl track in Montlhery, France. In 1935 - obviously a great year for him - while riding a 490cc Norton, he displayed tremendous stamina and broke the one-hour record at a speed of 114.09 mph and in doing so broke the 50km, 50 mile, 100 km and 100 mile records. Astonishingly, this also beat the records for the more powerful 750cc and 1,000cc classes.

With such a fabulous race record it is not surprising to learn that at home and abroad Guthrie had quite a fan base. Locals would go to his garage in the evenings to talk about the motorcycling scene, and at the TT races, the Manx crowds loved his all-out style where he would have his chest and chin as close to the bike's petrol tank as possible to make him more streamlined.

We will never know just how long Jimmie Guthrie could have gone on winning motorcycle races. In 1937, at the age of 40 Guthrie was often the eldest competitor in the field, yet when he headed off to Saxony for the German Grand Prix he had again won six titles in the 350cc and 500cc categories across Europe. This, tragically, was to be his last race.

On 8 August 1937 a crowd of around 250,000 people had gathered at the newly named Sachsenring at Hohenstein-Ernstthal west of Chemnitz close to Germany's border with Czechoslovakia. Guthrie, despite racing for Norton against the German BMW riders, was a popular figure in Germany, having won the event for the previous two years. His most recent German trophy, brass with three motorcyclists on top of the plinth, had the inscription “The Grand Prix of Europe. The Leader and Chancellor of the German Reich, Adolf Hitler, 1936.”

Going into the last lap of the 8.7km circuit, Guthrie had quickly made up for a bad start and was leading the race with nearly two minutes to spare. The Union Flag had been prepared to greet the Borders motorcyclist as he crossed the line, but the huge crowd fell silent when Guthrie failed to appear and word got out that he had had a serious accident.

Guthrie had survived a number of accidents before. In 1931, while on a practice run, he had careered into a flock of sheep that had strayed onto the road. He managed to stay on his bike that time, but in 1934 at Assen he had crashed while leading the field and two years later crashed at 110mph on a practice lap on the Isle of Man.

This time, though, Guthrie would not be so lucky. He suffered terrible injuries after coming off his bike on the dangerous Noetzhold corner near the finishing line and being thrown into trees. First-aid men rushed to help him. The ambulance that carried him got caught up in the heavy traffic of the spectators and took two hours to reach the hospital in Chemnitz. Of the 27 starters, only nine riders finished the race: Sachsenring was a most severe track.

Jimmie Guthrie in the 1930 TT race

Photo courtesy of Emap

An excellent article from 1992 in “Classic Motorcycling Legends” by journalist Gordon Small, combined with a book “Norton” by Mick Woollett, tells the story of Guthrie's last race. There are three theories as to what went wrong: engine seizure due to loss of oil, a broken spindle, and poor judgement by a German rider.

The Norton team believed it was a technical fault, but Guthrie's great friend and rival Stanley Woods offered a different, more sinister, view in: “He was fouled. As an intelligent, interested eye-witness I am prepared to take an oath that he was the victim of foul riding. I saw the accident because I was coasting to a standstill with a broken petrol pipe when two riders passed me – a German and Guthrie.

“It was just before a very fast downhill right-hander which Jimmie took flat out – he didn't let up at all. The German rider had been with Guthrie for some time and definitely knew he was there – but he couldn't take the bend flat out and he pulled across and forced Jimmie into the right-hand gutter.”

There is a photo of the deceased Guthrie lying on a hospital bed with four Nazi soldiers standing guard. The Union Flag had been hung at the back of his bed, and numerous wreaths and a swastika ribbon placed over his body. A trophy intended for the fastest German rider had been placed by his bedside. Hundreds of mourners filed past to pay their last respects. The Germans put on a special train, accompanied by a military escort, to take Guthrie's body to the border.

Jimmie Guthrie's bike

Photo courtesy of Hawick Museum

The funeral procession in Hawick stretched for three miles. The town had lost its favourite son and European motorcycle racing had lost an exceptional rider. Similar scenes were witnessed in Hawick in 2003 when popular motorcyclist Steve Hislop was laid to rest. Again, the funeral procession stretched for miles.

The Glasgow Herald of 1 September 1937 reported on the idea of a memorial to Jimmie Guthrie. “The proposal is that a bronze statuette should be erected in some prominent place in Hawick, and that a bed should be endowed in Hawick Cottage Hospital primarily for the use of injured motor cyclists and to be known as the Jimmy (sic) Guthrie bed.”

That statue, by Galashiels sculptor Thomas Clapperton, was erected in 1939 and sits in Wilton Lodge Park in Hawick just next to the town's museum, which features a splendid exhibition about Guthrie. Curator Richard White recalls that around 500 people visited the Guthrie room on its opening day, and every year bikers from around Europe come to pay their respects to one of the sport's legendary figures. Jimmie's son, also called Jimmie, who won the 1967 Isle of Man TT and now lives in South Africa, has donated many of his father's trophies to the collection.

There are other memorials to Jimmie Guthrie – the “Guthrie Stone” at the Sachsenring where he died, and another at the roadside spot, The Cutting, where he retired in his last Senior TT.

Listed below are the major achievements of Hawick's racing legend as listed by Hawick Museum:

1927 2nd Senior TT
1928 2nd 350 German Grand Prix
2nd 350 Swiss Grand Prix
1930 1st Lightweight TT
1st 350 German Grand Prix
1931 2nd Junior TT
2nd Senior TT
3rd 500 French Grand Prix
1st 500 “500 at Solitude”
1st 350 German Grand Prix
2nd 350 Ulster Grand Prix
1932 1st 350 Leinster “200”
2nd Senior TT
2nd 350 Belgian Grand Prix
1933 3rd Junior TT
4th Senior TT
2nd 350 French Grand Prix
1st 350 Belgian Grand Prix
2nd 350 Ulster Grand Prix
1st 350 Spanish Grand Prix
1st 500 Spanish Grand Prix
2nd 350 Grand Prix of Europe (Sweden)
1934 1st Junior TT
1st Senior TT
1935 1st 500 North West “200”
1st Junior TT
2nd Senior TT
1st 500 Swiss Grand Prix
2nd 350 Swiss Grand Prix
1st 500 Dutch TT
1st 500 German Grand Prix
1st 500 Belgian Grand Prix
1st 500 Grand Prix of Europe (Ulster)
1st 350 Spanish Grand Prix
1st 500 Spanish Grand Prix
1936 1st 350 Swiss Grand Prix
1st 500 Swiss Grand Prix
1st 500 North West “200”
1st Senior TT
1st 500 Belgian Grand Prix
1st 500 Grand Prix of Europe (Germany)
1st 500 Dutch TT
3rd Swedish Grand Prix
1937 1st 350 Leinster “200”
1st 500 North West “200”
1st Junior TT
1st 350 Grand Prix of Europe (Switzerland)
1st 500 Grand Prix of Europe (Switzerland)
1st 500 Belgian Grand Prix

World Speed Records at Montlhery, France

1934 50km record at 113.23mph
50 mile record at 113.39mph (both records set on a 490cc Norton)
1935 One hour record at 114.09mph
World 50km, 50 mile, 100km, 100 mile record all at over 114mph (all on 490cc Norton)
1936 One hour 350cc record at 107.43mph (348cc Norton)
World 50km, 50 mile, 100km records broken at over 117mph (490cc Norton)



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