|The Dave Degens Story, by LJK Setright
Back in the early 1970s, the 'phone in the Dresda
office on the western fringes of London shook with French fury. A firm over there had
ordered a Dresda chassis for a certain big Japanese four cylinder engine, and the caller
was absolutely livid because the engine could not be fitted into the frame supplied. David
Degens was to get out of his workshop immediately, it was made clear, get on the next
'plane to Paris, and sort it all out tout de suite.
He went; and when he arrived, he found two raging
Frenchmen: struggling to support the big engine while they tried to insinuate it into the
frame. Exasperated by what he saw, DD told them to put everything down on the floor.-
Now you must appreciate that DD is a brawny fellow, one
who has been known to pick up a bent bike brought Into the pits by a crashed co-rider and
straighten it again with his bare hands. But he has been brought up to use brains before
beef, to do things the best way rather than the most obvious and direct way.
So he laid the engine on its side' on the floor, picked
up the lightweight frame, and gently lowered it over the engine until it fitted snugly and
was ready to be bolted. Then he wished his abashed customers a good afternoon (or
something good) and caught the next 'plane back to London.
That little story just about sums up his career and his
attitudes. He often does things remarkably well, not only because of inborn physical gifts
but also because of a shrewd native intelligence that he prefers to call "common ion
sense." Unfortunately, most people do not like being shown to be lacking In that
precious commodity; they react resentfully, and he do not get all the credit he deserves.
Here is a chap who could race on even and amiable terms
with the best of his contemporaries, the likes of Hailwood and Ivy, but was never as
famous. Fate denied him a contract with the Honda works team when he had been racing only
two years. He has come and gone and come back again and finally gone from the endurance
racing scene, like a comet that is everybody's. cynosure while it is flying near and then
is forgotten as it orbits back to oblivion.
Nowadays he successfully races and builds classic Triumph
engined lightweights, derived from the Dresda racers which succeeded the Tritons that
helped to make his name in the 1960s
I rode one of those when it was the smartest thing on the
roads, 20 years ago. Like all Dresdas I have ridden since - a 500 Suzuki-engined
featherweight, an endurance-racing Honda four, a 750 Suzuki triple, and the six-cylinder
CBX-engined prodigy that he built specially for me - that Triumph-engined Dresda was one
of the -best-braked, best-steering, best-balanced and altogether best-behaved bikes I have
ever had the good fortune to bank fl- literally and metaphorically.
Yet it gave no clues to how he started in motorcycling. I
remembered, from the days when I lived In nearby Hampton (on Thames), how he used to check
out the brakes on his Gold Star - from top whack on the Great Chertsey Road, where the
police had marked speedo-checking quarter miles that I exploited for road-testing. I
remembered that he scratched a G50 around England's short circuits; but I could not
remember how he began. So that was how I began:
What started your enthusiasm for motorcycling? Were
you keen on the sport, interested in the machinery, or Simply In need of transport?
Even before I had a licence, a lot of my friends had
bikes, and so I got involved with them and sometimes drove them. I went charging around
all over Hounslow Heath on the first I had, a little Cyclemaster: I fiddled about with it
and made it do 35mph. Then there was a 125 James, and I tuned that; l was sure that
reversing the cylinder head made a lot of difference, but perhaps it didn't. Anyway, I got
it up to 55mph.
Next came an old ex-WD Matchless, paid for with earnings
from decorating neighbours' houses: it would only do about 65, but I learned B lot more
about tuning with that; I got 85 out of it. I even took a Dreadnought file to the head
joint so as to raise the compression ratio - and left so little valve clearance over the
pistons that I soon learned not to miss gearchanges, because at high revs the valves got
In those days, getting a licence was easy; you could
apply and pass the test within a week. Before I had one, I was driving my pals' bikes
quite a bit. One of them could drive quite well, but another was not so good, so I used to
drive so that he could keep up.
On my own bikes I did a terrific mileage in the first
year or so. Most evenings and weekends we would all charge off down to the coast, and I
soon found that I was faster than most of them through corners, though the straights were
a bit of a strain.
That was how I came to take a close interest in Tritons:
the first one I ever saw was ridden by one of the other fellows. He was a good deal older
than me (I was 16, he was 23), and he had put an iron 110 engine into an early Manx
chassis. It really went very well, I mangled the valves of my Matchless again, over-reving
to try and stay with him across the Salisbury Plain. So he towed me home, using a Barbour
belt with a hefty aero-elastic (you could get the pukkah ones In those days, much stronger
than today's) to take up any slack. I came back on the end of that at such speed that we
actually kept up with the other blokes. I remembered that bike when I first built a Triton
for Geoff Monty at Twickenham, then for myself, and then others. But what actually got me
into racing was another of my bunch of riding friends, Ian Wallace, a nice enough bloke -
at any rate, I liked him. But he bought a very fancy Bostock Triumph and was full of how
he was going to show everybody the way in racing. This got up the nose of another of my
friends, Paul Letts, who told me that I should enter the same event I had a BSA 500 Gold
Star by this time, so I went down to Thruxton too: I was lying second in my very first
race when I was brought off by another rider who suddenly pulled his bike upright just in
front of me and clipped my wheel.
But I was pleased with my showing, entered the next
meeting, won my heat and the final of the novices' race and came fifth in the experts! And
there I was, earning nothing a week, suddenly the better off to the equivalent of three
weeks' wages in prize money!
Earning nothing a week? Doing what?
Working for my father. He was very clever both in
mechanical engineering and electronics, and was building medical machinery and instruments
for taking the salt out of the bloodstream. He was ahead of his field with Ideas for a
kidney machine, years before such things ever existed, and if he had been as good a
businessman as he was an engineer I reckon he'd have become a millionaire. I've come to
realise that I'm not good at business either too easy or too hard at the wrong times.
I learned a lot from him, though. For Instance, he showed
me the mechanical basics when I was experimenting on my first bikes: measure, clean and
reassemble in the correct order, clean. More important, he taught me not to rush bull
headed at a job but to stand back and look at it, think about it, see the best way to do
It and how I could improve it.
He could see that motorcycling was all I cared for, and
was reasonably supportive as far as that went He had had bikes himself when he was
younger, and he lent me the money for my Gold Star, to be repaid out of my wages. Money
for petrol was handed over readily enough. I was doing an enormous mileage, fifty thousand
in the first two years - but petrol was very cheap then. He would not give me any for
anything else, such as going out to the pictures. If I went once a week, that was about my
Parents were like that In those days I seem to remember.
But I suspect your father remained a valuable adviser for a long time during your career:
Wasnt it him who put you on to T45 tubing and
BOC's special brazing when you began to make your own chassis to improve on the Triton?
Yes1 and there was the electrlcal work he put into the
bike on which I won the 1965 (Barcelona) 24 hours race1 The year before, I had been a
works rider there for BMW, but everything went wrong that could. It was fine as a fast
tourer1 but it hadn't the reserves for rac1ng. I finished, but with only one gear left in
the box , and during the night It broke generators, rockers, all sorts. Now my father saw
that there was need for a generator to be working all that hard, and on the bike I built
for 65 the rotor had been turned by him so that it ran freely and just gave a trickle
charge at full speed, all we needed for the lights. Lucas were still interested in those
days, and had made me a special magneto and we had the first Cibie lamps, very powerful.
Everyone in the pits could tell when my bike was coming, because the light hit the wall so
much harder than any of the others when l was still 200 yards away - and very efficient
Really, that was all the battery had to do; and anyway, dad had already devised a system:
where we had two 6v batteries in series mounted In the tall, with Lucas connectors, so
that even if the generator failed we could swap batteries when a rider change brought the
bike into the pits, and the new ones would be enough to keep the lights working.
I had my own ideas that came from the 64 race. When I
wasn't riding the BMW l was walking up and down the pits looking at everything.
There was Geoff Dodkin; for instance, with terrible
trouble with primary chains.
I was planning to build a bike with a pre-unit Triumph
engine (the unit one really only grew popular in 1965) so I thought why not build it with
duplex primary chains?
From observations like that and thinking over all the
lessons I learned from that BMW I thought out the bike that gave me the 1965 win.
My father had, worked out that all we had to do to win
was lap steadily in 2 minutes 10 seconds.
Well, with that bike you could do 2.10 one-handed and
with no brakes; so we settled for a comfortable 2.4"after the initial rush, because
there were all those works specials like the Bultacos which were very fast for a little
while . So we won (I remember getting a £5 bonus from Cibie: for using their lights) and
after looking the bike over we put it back on the road for John Ebbrell of Motor Cycling
to try out. He took it to Scotland and back, and wrote a glowing report , impressed quite
lot of people.
What did more was the single carburettor bike that I
built for my return to Barcelona in 1970 when I won again. It was just common sense
really; no point in lots of fuel stops and high power for a hillside circuit with seven
hairpins downhill, sometimes and only one straight What you want is surge coming out of
1 remember your telling me that Bill Ivy could always
beat you out of a comer, though your braking technique enabled you to beat anyone into a
He was so little, his bike was bound to accelerate
better! My braking ability was something that seem always to have had, but I was certainly
known for my late braking.
It's partly a matter of not being put off by the way the
bike shudders and moves about when you are braking very hard. I am aware of it, but it
doesn't worry me; and I've found that this same attitude has helped me to stay on a horse
at speed across Dartmoor.
l'm not as good a rider as my wife Teresa, but she came
off twice and I stayed on! Just because the horses were leaping and juddering about over
the rough - and I found the same applied in skiing, when I made a very rapid progress by
being able to stay upright across bumpy bits using the balance that I have found in
My late braking often helped me to be competitive with
people riding faster machinery. I think I was the one who started the practice of going up
on the inside at a comer, which takes the advantage away from the other man even though he
may be on a faster line. I first did it with my Gold Star Manx to Redman on the way into
the hairpin at Brands (he was on a G50, before his Honda days) and I think he took a dim
view of me ever afterwards.
How much have you found this a problem that ideas you
originate earn you little but resentment? what about those Honda-based Dresdas that were
so much faster than the opposition. In 1978 that the production-racing rules were changed
before the end of the season to exclude them?
Oh yes, I remember: Ray Knight was riding one. A good
steady rider, but nobody would have called him a real scratcher - yet he won 30 races out
of 32 entered. The other people complained that it was like racing against an aeroplane!
Another instance that comes to mind was when 1 was doing
some work for Yamaha. They wanted to get into endurance racing with a 750 twin, and
because of the good showing of my bikes they commissioned me to do a chassis, sending me a
slave engine to use.
It was pretty hopeless; no power, terrible overheating,
valve train problems. I cured the overheating by finding a way into the oil system and
fitting an oil cooler, and I did a number of things to the top and to the balancing, and
eventually it was powerful enough to justify the chassis.
What I didn't know at the time was that they had
contracted Porsche to develop the engine and Porsche had run into troubles galore: they
had perhaps 2bhp more than I had got, but with nothing at all except at the top. They were
getting starting problems, very rough running, cam chain tensioner problems.
So Yamaha, who had been surprised and Impressed by what I
had achieved with their engine, asked me to go to Porsche to see if 1 could help them.
When I got there I thought I was right out of my league;
they had a score of glass-fronted dyno rooms, with control panels outside full of digits
and flashing lights, highly-qualified men, tremendous stuff- and I wondered what I could
possibly do that they couldn't. Still, I thought I had better have a look, so they started
the engine up for me on the dyno. It wouldn't start or run below 5000rpm, but they had
powerful starter motors and just ran it up to that speed and then cracked it in, but even
when it was running at higher speeds I could hear that It was terribly wrong.
When they stopped it I looked again, and I couldn't
believe my eyes! The engine was fitted with twin Amal carbs, and they had put the throttle
slides in back to front! Of course the slow running and the progression were all adrift.
I didn't say anything, just went in and showed my back to
them while I took the slides out, reversed them, zeroed the stops and wound them in a turn
and a half, and then came out and asked them to try a normal start. Away it went, up and
down the rev scale quite normally, and you should have seen their engineers' faces!
But then I challenged them on the camchain tensioner: I
asked why they had bothered with it. "Because you must have one," they said. I
argued with them:
"You're supposed to be developing this engine for
endurance racing. No way is a racing bike going to do 10,000 miles in 24 hours, it will be
2000; nobody in his right mind is going to go adjusting camchain tension in that time. It
is something that might matter at 5000, but in racing it is just something that gives
trouble and does no good. Get rid of it! But they wouldn't listen to me, just stubbornly
insisted that a camchain tensioner was something that you had to have. They couldn't
contemplate any idea that wasn't backed up by a fully worked out and deeply theoretical
Eventually their chief fitter, a chap called Hans (I
suppose he was the top practical man under the theoreticians) saw the point of what I was
saying, and we tried it:
We got rid of the tensioner1 and I think we only had to
shim up the camshaft bearings 15 or 20 thou', and it worked. But still the boffins
wouldnt agree. Anyway, to get things changed the decision would have to go up to a
committee and then you'd have four men in blinkers, not just one!
It was the same with four-into-one exhausts. After I won
the 24 hours race in 1970, Japauto in France decided to have me do the chassis for the
team of Honda-engined bikes they wanted to enter for the Bol d'Or.
At that time there were not yet any 750 Hondas in
England, but anyway I did the chassis and Japauto used them and won - first and third, and
possibly another place though I can't remember. But they did have a ground clearance
problem, because of the four separate exhausts that we knew would give most power.
Still, I reckoned that (just as at Montjuich Park in
Barcelona) it made no sense to tune for maximum power that would matter only once lap on a
solitary straight when there were so many comers where you wanted a strong pull out of
them. So I proposed a four-into-one that would be lighter and much less bulky and work
well lower down even if it wasnt quite so hot at the top.
Everybody said it was no good, it wouldn't work. Even
Honda themselves said that they had tried it and It was no good: but I went ahead and
worked out a system, and it worked just as I thought it would - and the following year
absolutely everybody had a four-into-one. of course I never got any credit for it, all I
got was people telling me it wouldn't work; and that's the way it goes. l don't mind all
that much: Ive got used to it, and I got my satisfaction from knowing that while the
rest are catching up l am thinking about something new and different.
My use of tapered roller bearings for the steering head
was another example: I used them first in the swinging arms for which I was known, and it
made sense to use them in the steering head as well, but people just clucked over the idea
and were very dubious. Now practically every Japanese bike has tapered roller head
bearings: in this case the Japanese are only 15 years behind, which Is unusual!
That would be when you started building those Dresdas
that I like especially, the ones built around the Honda CBT50 engine - very different from
your British-based bikes. Was that because the supply of British twins was drying up? It
was on British bikes that you first made your name, riding for some pretty respectable
entrants; how about all that?
Triumph and Norton had gone backsliding quite a lot by
then, and there just wasn't much interest in them. Ten years earlier it was very different
I rode first for Geoff Monty you remember he had been in partnership with Alan Dudley
Ward, who was the Triumph specialist), later for Paul Dunstall and Tom Arter, and on one
occasion teamed with Croxford for Tommy Kirby. But the pattern of my career was all made
complicated by my having to do National Service, which seemed a disaster at the time.
I was in the very last batch recruits; I was born on July
28, and If it had been the first of August I would have been spared.
I was stationed at Colchester most of the time, and I
found that I could get there to Twickenham in one hour dead. it was exactly 72 miles1 and
I doubt if it could be done today, even with motorways; then, it meant coming into London
on one side and coming out the other.
I remember once, coming charging along the Embankment,
peeling off Into Parliament Square and discovering that the whole place was lined with
policemen guarding some Ban-the- bomb march, and I thought 'Crikey Now I'm done for!'
because a Gold Star with a twitter on it made quite a fair noise, and they would have
heard me coming along the Embankment in the 905, dropping down through the 'box for the
Square, and at the speed I was still going it only needed just one of those coppers to
step out and put up his hand. . . But instead the whole crowd cheered me on wildly, and I
tore around the Square and got out of It while the cheering was still loud!
I must say l never had any trouble with the Metropolitan
Police on the road, but the Essex Constabulary were much less tolerant I got used to
keeping a lookout astern, and simply reckoned that if I saw any lights that were keeping
pace with me it must be because I wasn't going fast enough.
In fact you were fast enough, I remember, to stay
with Hailwood, or even ahead of him, around Brands when you were both on similar machines.
The racing often looked frighteningly close In those days; was it as alarming as it
It was close, because most of the bikes had very similar
performance and so what counted was how well you could drive. I was hardly even aware of
how close we got, most of the time; but once, going into the hairpin at Brands, I looked
across and there was Paddy Driver with his fairing touching mine, and beyond him there was
Min with his fairing; touching Paddy's.
It didn't really matter; we were all going at about the
same speed, so relative to each other we were hardly moving. You might feel just a slight
touch and that was all. Riding that close to each other was commonplace then, and there
was often a fair bit of fun on the track.
Hailwood was particularly good, 'and if he put one across
you he would give you a big grin as he came by, maybe a tap on the shoulder and perhaps a
V sign as he went away; and If I were beating him I was just as likely to do the same.
We were friendly anyway, and to show how good he was
there was an instance at Daytona, rather later, at a World Championship event. Mike was on
the MV Agusta, there was that South American Caldarella on a Gilera four, while I was on a
G50 and so were Phil Read and some others.
I got a good start, but then as the MV came by, Mike
waved to me to tuck in behind him, and then he went away not as fast as the MV could, but
at a rate G50 could manage. Caldarella just went zooming into the distance, but Mike let
him go while he ' towed me away from the pack, keeping his eye on me to make sure I was
staying with him.
After about a lap, when we had got well ahead of the
hounds, he gave me a wave and rushed away to blow off Caldarella
Unfortunately I wasn't able to profit from the tow,
because the crankpin failed in my G50 while I was lying third.
In the old days it happened all the time. Once I was
riding a G50 and Dunstall had his Domiracer for Syd Mizen, but on the day my bike was sick
and so was Syd - so he said 'Here you are, Dave, ride mine." You wouldnt get a
factory rider lending his bike to a competitor today.
With thanks to LJK Setright and Classic Motor Cycle