Bonneville blasters. Glitter-flake bobbers. Old skool choppers. The Baron is the man when it comes to building hot-rod Triumphs
There’s something beautifully simple about the Baron’s old skool Triumphs. Small, light, stripped to the bare bones, they look like a throwback from a bygone era when bar-hoppers turned into drag racers.
Simple the Baron’s Triumphs may look, but there’s countless hours of engineering, and a lifetime of experience required to turn ageing Meriden twins into such useable, beautiful machines – attracting customers like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman.
Dick Smith, aka the Baron, is one of the UK’s few remaining old skool bike builders. His Speed Shop is a glittering metal-flaked jewel in a grungy industrial estate near Croydon. Inside are Triumph motors in various stages of completion, alongside part-built frames sitting patiently – some with wheels in, some a bare stock loop with a hardtail waiting to be tacked on.
Dick wears an almost permanent grimy look, with grease packed under his fingernails and shards of swarf tagged to his T-shirt. This is an artisan who lives and breathes motorcycles – and mainlines on the history of Triumph’s efforts in early US drag racing and, of course, the Bonneville Salt Flats. “I always wanted to go to Bonneville,” says Dick. “It was a kind of childhood dream. When a guy called Pete Allen came asking me to build him a bike for the Salt I couldn’t believe my luck.
Desert Racer - Built in 2017
This had to be a 1971 Triumph, the year of the customer’s birth. It had to be green and silver too because he raced Kawasaki motocrossers and a silver Caterham. It had to be a 500 Triumph because he raced a 500 Triumph Metisse. It’s got 10.1 compression pistons, Daytona cams, balanced crank, wide-ratio gearbox and a single carb for more bottom-end grunt.
The frame and swingarm are stock with rebuilt stock forks. It uses a 1966 front hub with a single leading shoe brake. It’s got a 19in front with a 3.50 Trials universal and 4.00 x 18 rear Dunlop knobbly.
I’d been into sprinting, drag racing and land speed bikes since I was at school, but Bonneville had always remained an elusive dream.”
Dick was always destined to work with his hands. As a kid he tore mechanical toys apart and rebuilt them. “The first bike I ever built was a Bantam D7 field bike with a plunger frame. I had a set of BSA service sheets, which I used to work out where everything went. The only thing I had to get help with was the timing. It didn’t run clean so my dad pitched in to sort it. There was no holding me back after that. I guess I was about 11 or 12 at the time.
“Kids today don’t seem to do anything like that anymore,” Dick says with a sense of disappointment. Back then, schools encouraged kids with an engineering bent. “My metalwork teacher Albert Wiffin used to sprint and road race Rudges, we even had a Dot Trials bike hanging from the ceiling in the classroom. Plenty to fire the imagination.”
After a Bantam Bushman, BSA A10 Gold Flash, Triton and a Super Rocket, Dick got married, had kids and the motorcycles went, though he continued to build bikes for other people. He worked for a Touch of Classic in Tamworth Road, then went to MCS in Leytonstone and was there in the workshops till they closed in 2000.
Original Sin - Built in 2005
“This was built for Del. The cases are 1960 T110 and it has got a three-piece crank and stock rods with 9:1 pistons and 3134 cams. With polished head and ports and a single carb, it’s a little monster! The front of the frame is 1960 Triumph Trophy, the rear end is MAP rigid, stretched six inches. It has got 1960s forks with Baron’s covers, a Sportster tank, replica Bates seat and a ribbed fender by us. The late Tony Cook made the kicked-up pipes because, at that time, Baron’s had no exhaust pipe bender.”
“I’d built chops there and made myself a 1962, factory race-kitted Bonnie.” He joined Ace Classics in 2000 and ran their workshop for 12 years, servicing bikes and doing restorations. He also built the 1954 Triumph T110 race bike for Goodwood. “I’d been restoring bikes at MCS and then I went to Ace and did the same, to the point that I got sick of doing restorations and left to do my own thing.”
Dick had already been building custom bikes in his spare time: “In 2004, I’d built The Delinquent, based on a late 1950s/early ’60s American street/strip bike, what’s termed ‘show & go’. It was an early 1950s rigid Triumph Thunderbird, stripped to the bare essentials. That bike started off a whole new business. I got interest from the States where they seemed keen on looking back at their past. I love those little bobbers.
“I’d been knocking about with my mate Del for years and when I built the bike, my mates in the States, who called me ‘Baron von Triton’, said I should do my own thing.
Bonneville Bike - Built in 2013
Triumph 6T cases with Harman and Collins cams, heavyweight EN36B nitride steel flywheels and a three-piece crank which allows a degree of flex at high rpm so they don’t snap like a one-piece crank might. R&R billet alloy rods, nine-stud barrels (“they’re standard bore to go for 650cc class record we wanted,” says Dick). 11:1 MC Cycles forged pistons, big valves from Norman Hyde, Hyde springs. Lightened and polished rockers. Joe Hunt magneto. Five-speed box. One-and-ahalf inch Amal GP carbs. The clutch was built from different bits and pieces, it started with a Hyde seven-plate clutch but on a modified pre-unit basket with a modified centre and alloy pressure plate. Modified Factory Metal Works frame with a Baron’s seat and metal profile forks. The tank is a modified Trident export. Barleycorn rearsets. Avon 90/90 x 19 front, 100/90 x 19 rear.
Pendine Spe cial - Built in 2012
1953 500cc Tiger 100 with a small-bearing motor – the timing side bearing is 1in instead of 1 1/8th – so it’s got a roller conversion. Balanced crank, 9:1 pistons, gas-flowed head, 3134 cams. Twin, 11/16in Amal Monoblocs. Close-ratio gearbox. Frame has a 3in stretch in the rear.
For tarmac it runs a slick, 4.00in wide and a 3.50 x 19 for the sand at Pendine. The front is a 3.00 x 21in.
Del was up for it, so we converted the old lock-up into the workshop at the back of his house to start the Baron’s Speed Shop.” In 2005 The Delinquent appeared in a Classic Bike feature and a few days later, Dick’s new business was suddenly alive. “The phone went, my missus answers it and this guy says, ‘it’s Ewan McGregor here…’ My missus calls me and says, ‘Ewan McGregor wants you to build him a bike.’ I’m thinking yeah, yeah. So I call the number and leave a message. Two minutes later Ewan calls back and wants to see about me building him a bike. He came to the workshop and we hit it off.
“Ewan’s bike generated huge interest, not enough to earn a living but enough to make me think it was something to build on for the future, so I started stockpiling spares. The vintage custom scene was starting to pick up pace, especially the 1950s and early ’60s period street-drags style, which appealed to the kind of guys who also had this thing about nostalgia hot rods.”
Dick started making a range of parts: spun alloy oil tanks, ribbed fenders, fork covers – and he also got a contact in the States to make him white footpegs. He’d have got white grips too but someone was already doing them.
He also got tied up with Lucas Joyner at Factory Metal Works. “I liked the look of his work and became his European dealer, bringing in hardtail Triumph frames,” he says.
In 2010 Dick took the plunge and made the Baron’s Speed Shop his main employment, while still running the workshop at Ace for a couple of days a week – just as the financial crash took hold and the phones stopped ringing for new bike builds. But he stuck with it and in 2013 built a bike for Peter Allen to race at Bonneville.
“I’d already built Peter a little 500 with red paint and a hardtail frame that he ran at the beach races at Pendine. We also did Dragstalgia at Santa Pod. It was one of the few bikes there that represented the period when drag racing first came to Britain in the 1960s – a time when the Yanks were racing modified rigid Triumphs and Harley Sportsters…
“But Pete had this bucket list of ambitions and one of then was to take a Triumph twin to Bonneville and go for a record. We achieved that but we had a lot to learn – mainly about the event and the fact that we were running at altitude – so we went again in 2014 hoping for much greater speeds but it was rained off. I will go back again but with a new double-engine Triumph that’s in the build stages right now.”
Sunset Stripper - Built 2008-16
Del’s Harley looks like a WLA but it’s actually the motor out of a 1959 Servicar. Harley had stopped making the WLA by ’59. The motor is from Harpoon, a custom painter in the States; rebuilt by Dick, it’s got a new big-end. The drive to the crank has been extended to accommodate belt drive primary for the BSA B31 gearbox. It’s also got a Norton Commando clutch. Dick bought a one-off ’70s custom frame at an autojumble ten years ago, which he had to de-rake and matched it with Polishmade springer forks. Triumph rear wheel, Chopper Stopper front wheel (“the brake is absolutely useless”), Wassell peanut tank with an added rib and Wassell mudguard.
Dick is Triumph through and through but is split on whether he’s a pre-unit or unit man… “I like the look of the pre-unit – it somehow looks right with the separate engine and gearbox – and for some strange reason you can seem to get more power from them. But for practicality it’s the unit motor – much easier for primary chain adjustment.
“Racing-wise the pre-unit is better. With the unit engine if the thing shits itself there’s the likelihood it’s going to make a hole in the gearbox. With the pre-unit it’s usually salvageable. I also prefer the nine-stud head instead of the eight stud which is prone to cracking.
“Thing is, while we specialise in Meriden Triumph twins I’ve been around long enough to turn my hand to anything. We’ve got the new shop space, a really well equipped workshop and the aim is to get a really good vibe going here.
“This is a pretty big industrial estate so I can easily fire up a methanol-fuelled dragster up with no-one worrying about the noise – which means there’s also no problem with shop open days and parties.
“We’re going to turn the Baron’s Speed Shop into a destination. We’re doing clothing – we’ve linked up with Goldtop Leathers; Rads Loft bespoke leather belts wallets and saddles; Biltwell helmets and parts; Dickies workwear; and a host of other brands through Motorcycle Storehouse. We’ll do hardparts too, with Harley stuff coming through Storehouse and Triumph stuff through Harris. I’ll also do Hinckley Triumph stuff too.
Ewan’s Bobber - Built in 2006
1958 Triumph 5T cases with nine-stud 650cc barrels. Three-piece crank, Thunderbird cams, nine-stud head. 7:1 pistons to make it run smooth. Stock rigid 1951 frame. Stock frame. Stock forks (1946-1956) with Baron’s fork covers. Tiger Cub front hub. 21in front rim with WM2 Speedmaster; 3.00 x 18 rear with Avon tyre. Stock rear hub, chromed. Banana Wassell tank. Repro Bates seat. Paintbox did all the paint, Neil Melliard did the striping.
Carolina Kid - Built in 2012
This was made for Lucas Joyner, owner of Factory Metal Works in North Carolina. 6T cases. 3134 cams. 9:1 pistons. Twin concentrics on a Webco manifold. Gas-flowed head. Balanced cranks. Lucas racing magneto. Stock gearbox. Stock clutch with light alloy pressure plate. Factory Metal Works drag pipes. Repro early Triumph rigid frame. Mustang tank, narrowed and lowered to look 1960s aftermarket. Drag race seat. Baron’s rear fender. Stock 1946-56 forks with Baron’s covers. Spool front hub (no brake). WM1 x 19 front wheel; WM3 x 19 rear. Vintage Hurst drag racing rear slick. Stock rear hub, drilled and chromed.
“We no longer limit ourselves to custom building just British bikes either. We can do seat loops and tail tidies for most machines – and can customise pretty much anything.” Dick’s also planning a Hinckley Bonnie in a Meriden-style desert racer – stripped to the bare bones: “It’ll be like the Meriden twin we built for Stanford Coach Works. I’ll lighten it up but rather than do that dull matt black, matt grey, matt green thing, we’ll go the other way and do it in 1960s glitter flake.
“We’ll also have open nights, we’ll run fabrication courses and bike maintenance courses. There’s nothing else like it on the southern side of London and we’re served by some great country roads to get here.”