He’s Irish, he’s 85 years old, he’s a top ex-racer who almost got to steal a ride on the 6-cylinder Honda 250cc GP bike, and he introduced the Honda 750 Four to South Africa. His name is Roger McCleery. Gavin Foster talks to theGrand Old Man of South African motoring journalism.
“I was born in Bangor, Northern Ireland on 9 July 1935 and came out here when my father got a job in Durban when I was four,” remembers Roger. “The war broke out two months later so he signed up and buggered off back to Europe!” Little Roger had no choice but to bugger off to boarding school, which is how he came to find himself at what later became the Inchanga Hotel, midway between Durban and Pietermaritzburg.
“It was great to be out in the country after the wartime drama of Durban,” he reminisces, “at a wonderful, lazy kind of school. It was a tremendous thrill to go home for the holidays on the steam train from the station below, and as a treat we used to sometimes catch the train to Pietermaritzburg to do shopping. We used to have picnics down at the river, and after an Indian trading store on the old 1000 Hills road above – the Comrades Marathon route – burnt down we used to dig for treasure. Coming up with a handful of beads was like finding gold for us.”
Roger often returned to the hotel during KZN motorsport events in the ʼ70s and ʼ80s. “I remember that the owner had a wooden leg with a leather knee joint that creaked as he walked. He and his wife used to sometimes drink a little too much and then he’d fall over. I have many fond memories of this place!”
Some years ago I did a story on the old hotel and heard all about the colourful Peter Barnes who owned the hotel with his fiery wife, Celia. Barnes had years before lost his original leg to the bullet of a cuckolded Frenchman, who caught him in his sights as he tried to escape from the lady’s bedroom window. Roger, of course, had nothing to do with that!
But on to the motorcycles. “Bike racing ran strong in both sides of the family – my father and my uncle both raced bikes in Ireland, usually on dangerous road circuits,” says Roger. “I always wanted to race as well. The first bike I rode was a Royal Enfield side-valve and the first one that I owned was a Triumph Cub that I raced for the first time at Killarney in 1955, using a borrowed helmet. I won two handicap races and then went to race at Eerste Rivier soon after and won again. I thought, ‘this bike racing stuff is easy’ but things changed after that! We eventually bought another very trick Cub that had been built by a guy called Wilkie Wilkins in Cape Town. That had a Norton big-end, Triumph Bonneville brakes, a 1¼-inch carb, Earles forks, and swing-arm rear suspension. It used to rev and go like hell, reaching about 100 miles per hour (160km/h) and the brakes were incredible. There was nothing to touch it.” Until Mike Hailwood arrived in SA as a callow teenager in 1957, that is, and won every race he entered. “He came out with the ex-John Surtees NSU Sportmax 250 and gave me a ride on it after one meeting. As I came down the straight two guys were packing up a loudspeaker cable running across the track and it just went over the top of my head.” That little race-winning NSU sold on auction in 2014 for more than R1.1 million.
Roger persevered with the little Triumph for a while before turning to the Japanese. “I used to schlepp it around the country but it was difficult to get leave in those days – I worked for Caltex in the transport department.” That unhappy state of affairs changed though, with the arrival of a few very quick Honda racebikes in the early ʼ60s. Anglo-Rhodesian six-time world champion Jim Redman had come back from Europe with a Honda 250 4-cylinder race bike and suddenly everybody wanted one of the Japanese bikes.” There was no production Honda Four then, but the factory produced a 250 twin racer for privateers. The guys used to rev them to 14000 and they’d throw conrods but if you kept them down to 12500rpm they lasted forever and were faster accelerating than the Fours.” Roger went on to win multiple Western Province championships on the Japanese machines. “I also won the Border 100, and the Natal 200 twice,” he remembers. “I won twice at Westmead in Pinetown, and the first time I spent my winnings on an engagement ring while the second paid for our wedding.” In ten years of racing Roger never once fell off in a race, although he crashed out a few times in practice without injury.
So, how did Roger get involved with Honda marketing and PR? “In 1963 I saw a big ad in The Argus saying that Honda was coming to South Africa, so I wrote to them and told them they needed me. When I got the job I did everything! I wrote service manuals, did their PR, travelled the country looking for potential dealers to sign up, and took photographs. The big thing was we did it with passion, starting from scratch.”
When Honda later introduced their 5-speed overhead-cam 50cc sports bike as a replacement for the 4-speed OHV 50 they didn’t know what to call it until Roger came up with the ‘Fury’ name. Those of us who started on buzz bikes in the 1960s and early ʼ70s will remember the Honda Fury well. Roger also arranged a 12-hour record attempt at Killarney for a whole swarm of the little bikes, with the quickest covering 912km at an average of 76km/h. “Towards the end of the 12 hours we battled to get okes who wanted to ride,” he chuckles.
Then in 1969 came the mighty Honda 750 Four with its 4-cylinder OHC engine, four carburettors, disc front brake and electric starter.“We launched that at the Buffalo Rally in September,” he remembers. “We assembled the bike at Honda House in Durban and I rode it down to the rally at Bathurst near PE. The bike was priced at R1 196 – we wanted to keep it cheaper than the Triumph Trident triple that was R1 200. Honda’s marketing guy had asked me how many I thought we could sell, and I told him we’d move 25-30 a month. They didn’t believe me. At the Buffalo 450 people rode it and the orders just rolled in from all over the country. Honda said that Mike Bramley (a Johannesburg traffic cop, a Hells Angel and SA’s top drag racer all rolled into one) had to ride it first. We also had a caravan full of booze at the rally, and that was the only time I ever had wine with my cornflakes – we forgot to take milk!”
Roger also arranged for Mike Hailwood, who was by then a good friend who stayed in Durban every year in the off-season and later moved here, to bring the mighty 6-cylinder Honda 250 GP bike to Southern Africa at the end of 1964. Roger drove up from Johannesburg with the stripped-down GP bike taking up the space usually allotted to passengers in his Valiant sedan, while the multiple world champion flew up to Bulawayo to ride it in a race there.“We arrived at about four in the morning and later went off to the airport to fetch him. Everybody got off the plane, but no Mike. He’d gone to sleep in the back of the plane and been forgotten!” The Rhodesians grumbled a fair bit about having to race against the world champion on a 6-cylinder factory GP bike, so Mike did just a couple of laps to suss out the track and then moved way behind the pack for the start of the race. By the fourth lap he was in the lead and pulling away.
So, did Roger ever get to ride the legendary Honda Six? “Well, I tried to ride it around Park Central in Johannesburg once but we couldn’t get it to run right. We’d push it and it would start – whap, whap, whaaaapp – but when we opened the throttle it would just die. Then Mike came out to Kyalami one day and Paddy Driver and I watched very carefully as he turned on the fuel tap and tickled the carbs until the whole rear of the bike was awash in fuel. He took two steps, dropped the clutch and away it went. Now we knew how to start it! Honda later let a couple of people ride it though and one of them broke the gearbox, so that was that. We had another Six here for a while and tried to hang on to it but the Japanese got nasty and made us send it back!”
It was also Mike Hailwood and that very special Honda Six that first got Roger involved in commentating at the racetrack, and then moving on to become South Africa’s – and probably Ireland’s – best-known and longest-serving motorsport radio, television and print journalist. “Hailwood was riding the Six at Killarney and the organisers were playing music over the PA system. I asked why they were doing that when they had the world champion out there on that gorgeous-sounding 6-cylinder machine, so they invited me to take over the mic and give a commentary. That was the start of it all.”
During Alfa South Africa’s heyday in the late ʼ70s and early ʼ80s, Roger was a key figure in the sales and marketing department and of course was involved behind the scenes in bringing numerous motorcycle grands prix and international racing events to our shores. Roger is still a motoring journalist working mainly on radio and in print. He attends car launches around the country, writes for a multitude of publications and has done time as chairman and president of the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists.