Known throughout the drag world as “The Master” there is so much more to Alf Hagon than first meets the eye. A quiet, unassuming man who could easily be mistaken for the store man within his shock absorber and wheel building factory rather than the resourceful and inventive engineer that he undoubtedly is, Alf has excelled at virtually everything he has ever undertaken.
Born in 1931 Alf emerged out of the Second World War unscathed and developed a passion for motorcycles, acquiring a 1937 250 New Imperial at the age of fifteen. This bike, which featured monoshock rear suspension, had to be run on methanol due to the total lack of petrol following the end of the war. A 350 Rudge followed the New Imperial and keen to do something more than just speed aimlessly around open fields with his friends, Alf entered a local grass track meeting, towing the Rudge to the race meet at Barkingside behind a mates motorcycle. Later on Alf’s father, a London cabby, was pressed ganged into using his black cab to tow a specially built trailer up and down the country to the various races. The Rudge would be used for all events from scrambling to road racing simply by changing the rear tyre and gave Hagon much experience in all disciplines that later would prove invaluable. The very first road race held at Brands Hatch saw Hagon and the 350 Rudge racing anticlockwise around what we now know as the Indy circuit.
The young Hagon, had wanted to be a cabinetmaker and started work at a furniture manufacturers to earn the cash needed to compete.
He later spent nine years working at an engineering firm, combining this with his busy speedway schedule, until the boss looked at the amount of time Alf was having off due to his race commitments, suggesting the company might be a great deal better off without the services of one Alf Hagon.
In 1953, some five years into his racing career, Hagon took part in a one off ride at the TT on a 500 Norton International, Alf was drafted in to ride for a London club team at the last minute to replace an injured rider. He eventually finished 29th although at one stage he was lying as high as 8th until being forced to stop and repair a magneto on the last lap.
1957 saw the first of the Hagon frames and complete bikes, the first of over a thousand such frames that he built being sold to Austin Creswell, a leading rider of the period. Alf would make all the components, with the exception of the Girling shock absorbers used on the Grass track bikes, himself, initially from a 6’x 8′ shed in his mothers garden. The tubing would be cut to length and then be transported up the road to be welded together at Tom Kirby’s workshop. This association led to Alf having the odd ride on Kirby prepared and tuned road race machines. The Hagon grass track machines were the first to use speedway technology and soon all of his fellow frame manufacturers followed suit. When Girling were taken over by Boge in the seventies they showed no interest in continuing production of the motorcycle shock absorbers leaving Alf very much in the lurch. After much searching for a replacement unit Alf eventually started making his own dampers initially based on the original Girling shock. This has now become the business we see today currently producing top quality suspension units for most modern road bikes as well as the “classic” range held in high regard by racers through the world.
In 1959 Alf met his wife Jean, a keen speedway fan herself, while riding at a meeting and shortly after the pair had a son, Martin, making a timely arrival on Christmas day 1961 and later then in 1965 a daughter, Julie, appeared on the scene. The newly weds opened their first shop on Leyton High Street, London in 1960 to make the most of Alf’s Speedway and Grass track chassis building. They lived over the shop for any number of years, building their business up throughout the sixties off the back of Alf ‘s notoriety on the circuits up and down the country.
Having achieved much success on both grass and shale Alf became a drag race star completely by accident although he had competed successfully in several hill climbs on his Grass track bikes.
Len Cole, a sales representative and regular visitor to Hagon’s shop, egged Alf to have a go a the straight line stuff on board Gordon Colquhoun’s 998 Moto Vincent. Colquhoun’s regular rider, Charlie Rous, was unable to ride so Hagon obligingly filled the slot, finding himself up against the very best in the country on this first outing including the mighty George Brown and his turbo charged Vincent “Super Nero”. Typically Hagon was not fazed by this and found the technique required to get a drag bike off the line no different to his track bikes despite much advice to the contrary from the drag race fraternity.
As a professional Speedway rider Alf was effectively doing twenty or so competitive drag starts a week so launching the Moto Vincent away from the lights was nothing out of the ordinary. Alf soundly beat George Brown at this first meeting and lit the spark that eventually led to the development of the Hagon Jap. Hagon initially built and ran a 750 Triumph with a two speed box, a normal four speed but with just second and top utilised, housed in a speedway frame on which he took several national records for that class.
Using basic engineering, and more than a little common sense, the Jap was built in Alf’s workshops behind his busy motorcycle shop. Based heavily on his Grass track and Speedway frames, the drag bike has absolutely nothing on it that is not strictly necessary, even handlebar grips are dispensed with. Contemporary drag bikes of the day strongly resembled conventional road machines with telescopic forks, padded seats and other such luxuries, but not for Alf. Why be comfortable when you are not on it for more than a few seconds? Never one to approach anything from a normal view point Hagon started building the Jap with a clean sheet. Seen here, the seat is a piece of aluminium pop riveted to the frame, but in the sixties the aluminium was not deemed necessary and Alf simply sat on the tube framework. As can be seen from the pictures absolutely no provision was made or deemed necessary to protect Alf from the open valves and pushrods at the top end of the engine.
Utilising rubber band, undamped, front suspension and a solid rear end the drag bike is in reality a stretched speedway bike that went on to influence drag bike design forever. Enquiries soon followed from America and Hagon was commissioned to build several complete drag machines, the one featured here is a prototype being tested by Alf and uses a conventionally aspirated 440cc Honda twin in a shorter version of the Jap chassis.
The Jap frame is literally a one off and still bares the scars of the head angle being kicked back a few degrees early on in its life to aid high speed handling and stability. Alf would never build another chassis just to rectify this problem when a simple repair was just as effective so the evidence of the modification remains to this day. A testimony to Alf’s design of the Jap drag bike or in fact any of Alfs frames is the absence of any kind of steering damper, even during the record breaking speed runs Hagon never felt the need for such devices.
The V twin engine is out of a Cooper racing car of the type driven by among others John Surtees, largely magnesium in construction the capacity of the Jap engine would have been 1100cc for car racing. The upper limit in the UK for bikes at the time was 1000cc so Hagon ran smaller 80mm bore Jap pistons and cylinders, keeping the stroke at 99mm. As time went on the bore increased however, mainly due to the American drag racers who came over to compete in the UK with their big capacity bikes forcing the organisers here to increase the limit. Eventually the Jap grew to 1260cc with the final configuration using 90mm bore G50 Matchless pistons.
From the outset the Jap featured no streamlining whatsoever, something that Alf considered unnecessary, quickly becoming a distinct advantage as Hagon’s rivals, with their grand prix style “dustbin” fairings, often struggled terribly with side winds. So much so that often the likes of George Brown and co would be blown off course, completely failing to pass between the timing lights at the end of the strip, hence not recording a time and leaving Alf the victor of many a duel.
The Hagon designed nose cone seen here mounted to the frame rather than the handle bars, became the norm in the drag race world and made his Jap engined sprinter instantly recognisable even to the average man in the street. Even Britains, the leading UK toy maker, made a 1/36 scale Hagon Jap complete with a spread-eagled Alf decked out in his pudding basin helmet. Originally the fuel tank was mounted in the frame just behind the headstock once again just like a speedway bike, but with the arrival of the nose cone Alf spotted an empty space within it, shifting the tank way up in to the bows, coincidentally right over the front wheel spindle. The tight space within the nose cone necessitates the removal of the screen to fill up between runs.
The Hagon Jap once mistakenly competed in a hill climb, having been invited to a “sprint” by the Welsh organisers. Alf turned up at the venue to discover the course was neither straight or flat as it wound it’s way up a mountain side!! “Never mind” said Alf, never one to let people down, he duly competed on the lengthy, gearless drag bike, winning the event by a large margin and leaving the Welsh completely speechless. Alf confesses that the brakes were absolutely useless for such events however and he had to shut off halfway up the course and coast to the finish just to stop the pair going off the side of the mountain!
The Jap was so light at the start that there was not enough mass to prevent the engine from vibrating the bike destructively. This vibration was not only threatening to destroy the machine it was also effecting the running of the engine, so much so that conventional carburetion had to be junked in favour of fuel injection. The float bowls of the original Amal carburettors would just bubble over with the reverberations that a pair of injectors had to be fitted and then in it’s final incarnation ready for the 1966 season which came in the form of supercharging and a single larger injector. The Shorrock Supercharger runs off the left hand side of the crank via two rubber V belts and is geared to spin slightly faster than the engine. The extra weight of the supercharger calmed the vibrations down to sensible levels, killing two birds with one stone in typical laconic Hagon style. Likewise the clutch is a standard Norton five plate affair with the basket extended to accommodate three more plates, with the welding still clearly visible on the clutch outer. The sparks are provided by a pair of BTH magneto’s, once again more commonly found on speedway bikes of the period, timed to fire some 35 degrees before top dead centre.
Running on methanol and a 35% nitro mix, the supercharger sucks this explosive charge through a Hagon built Phillips 2 ” injector. The actual bore size of the injector Alf was not sure of as he says he bored it out to the point of it falling apart in an effort to get the most amount of air through it as possible. Lubrication back then was Castrol R30. In it’s final form the V twin with it’s compression ratio of 8-1 had in excess of 150 bhp on tap which was more than sufficient to power the 230 lb bike to the world record speeds it achieved.
It was the first bike to break the 10-second barrier and would often cross the line with a terminal speed in excess of 150 mph. Talking to Alf now reveals that the bike had a lot more to offer as it was always still accelerating well through the timing lights and never ran out of steam. The fastest standing quarter, and World record at the time, actually recorded by Alf on the Jap was 9.28 seconds with a terminal speed of 157mph.
Hagon shot to world wide fame in 1968 when he became the first man in the UK to break the 200mph barrier on a motorcycle. Using the expansive runways at RAF Honington, more used to fighters and bombers like the Buccaneer, Hagon exceeded the take off and landing speeds of any such military aircraft when he pushed his Jap to a staggering 206 mph. To achieve this a three-speed Quaife gear box was added to the normally direct drive single speed drag bike giving a much greater terminal velocity. A treaded rear Dunlop KR96 road race tyre was fitted as a precaution as the manufacturers of the usual drag race slick were concerned about the sustained high speeds and huge centrifugal forces involved in the record run. The attempt was not without drama as on the first run the Jap dislodged a valve push rod at 190mph, this was fixed quite easily allowing Alf to make a final and successful run. Changing in to second gear at 100mph and then finally hooking third at some 160mph the Jap achieved this amazing speed with ease!
Those sort of speeds on such skinny tyres would have been either very exhilarating or downright scary. The front tyre is a mere 2.50 x 18 and would have been ribbed in it’s day, imagine trying to stop a bike doing 206mph with very little in the way of braking. The rear brake actually uses the sprocket surface as the disc with a primitive but effective caliper forcing two brake blocks on to the metal, just be very careful with that chain lube!! The front brake is a basic single leading shoe design more suitable for a Bantam or such like than a 200 mph projectile.
In the early 70’s and with his racing days well and truly over, Alf sold the Jap for £400 to Eddie Castle who then shipped it off to Australia and that was that. Until 1982 when Martin Hagon, by now a grass and speedway rider himself and later to be crowned both European and UK Grass track champion, was competing in his first professional season. Speedway riders are a nomadic lot and Martin found himself riding in Australia throughout the winter of that year. Based in the town of Taree, New South Wales, he got talking to Peter Sutherland, the owner of a local coffee shop. Peter now owned the Hagon Jap having run the bike a few times but had blown it up, splitting the magnesium crankcases and repaired the bike only to lay it to rest actually in the town of Taree. Some years later in 1994 a Hagon employee was over in Australia and having been given directions to the coffee shop in Taree, tracked down Peter Sutherland with a view to striking a deal to return the Hagon Jap to England. The deal was done and the Hagon Jap was returned to the Factory in Hainault, Essex and the loving care of Alf.
Quite how the Jap travelled and competed half way around the world and yet still survived completely unmodified is beyond belief, but luckily it did and remains in the foyer of the Hagon factory for the visitors to peruse. Apart from routine maintenance Alf made a pair of new cylinders for the G50 pistons to do their best in and the restored bike was run for one last time in 1994 at the North Weald sprint. At this event, held just up the road from the Hagon family home, a sprawling 17 acre farm near Waltham Abbey, several famous drag racers and their bikes had been lined up to perform demonstration runs. Alf, then 63 years of age and resplendent in all white speedway leathers, boots and a full face Arai helmet, once again made it look so easy taking the Jap engined drag bike to a 10 second standing quarter.
An interesting interlude in the life of the supercharged Jap came in 1968 when the sports editor of the weekly newspaper Motor Cycle, Graham Forsdyke, under the tutelage of Hagon performed a sub ten second run. This made Forsdyke, now an antiques dealer, one of only two people outside of America to achieve such a task, the other, of course, being the unassuming Alf. When the journalist walked the quarter mile course after the run he measured a skid mark some 160 yards long, nearly a third of the total course distance caused by the rear tyre wildly spinning away from the line. Such was the low down grunt of the Jap, just think of the times it could have achieved if the tyre could have been made to grip for the whole quarter.
We can really only scratch the surface of Alf Hagon and his achievements within the confines of this article, for instance he was national grass track champion a staggering 11 times and spent some 12 years as a pro speedway rider. He rode competitive trials and scrambles as well as the odd road race here and there, he created the radical aluminium plate framed single cylinder racers that were so competitive in Kenning series. The basis of that range of bikes led to the successful Vic Eastwood Suzuki motocross bike currently being restored by Martin Hagon. Today the Hagon concern make suspension units for virtually everything from aircraft to tractor cabs.