During the fifties and sixties there was a gang of motorcycle racers collectively known as the Continental Circus. In recent accounts of their activities they were described as Cavaliers or perhaps, more accurately, Gladiators.
Ollie Howe, who died last week from prostate cancer in an Oxfordshire hospital, was one of those men.
He was not the most successful of the bunch, in fact the records show that he didn’t win a single world championship point (they only went down to sixth place in those days). But he was good and had talents that most of those he was racing against came nowhere near.
His wife Tressa - they met on a ski-ing trip to Canada 17 years ago - described him thus: “He had a fantastic life with all the interesting things he used to get up to. Friends knew him as someone always intriguing and who had maximum fun.
“Ollie was a serious player, a great engineer, who would be ready to put down his tools for a break either to do a business deal or equally tear off to France or Canada for a raucous Alpine ski-ing trip.”
He was an aerobatic pilot and, in fact, built his own plane. He was a talented musician, a saxophonist playing in bands with other musicians. He enjoyed still life drawing, clay pigeon shooting and, until recently, a mad-keen golfer.
His other previous business interests included running pubs, a car dealership and a logistics company. This was apart from rebuilding racing bikes
But above all he was a motorcycle racer and for many years was part of the Grand Prix tour which went from circuit to circuit, being paid just enough per event to get therm to the next one. His transport was a second hand ambulance with Trident Racing emblazoned on the side, but big enough to carry a couple of Manx Nortons and, when removed, to accommodate Ollie and his first wife Bobby.
He was born in Putney but spent his early years in Toronto training to be an engineer and designer of motorbike and eventually racing them in Canada and the US. His mothers declining health brought him back noon the UK.
Those were the days when racing was dominated by multi cylinder machines from Japan and Italy and riders like Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Jim Redman and other greats of the time, maybe all time.
The rest of the contenders, in the 350 and 500 cc classes, largely consisted of riders from the UK and the Commonwealth. Ollie liked the look of that, got himself a couple of Nortons, a van and off he went.
As described in a book Grand Prix published in 1968 the Circus was populated by an eclectic mix of Commonwealth racers who could only be described as adventurers. Riders like Ginger Molloy and Hugh Anderson from New Zealand; Barry Smith, Jack Ahearn, Kel Carruthers, Jack Findlay and others from Australia; Paddy Driver from Rhodesia; and from the UK Lewis Young, Billie Nelson, Godfrey Nash and Maurice Hawthorne among many others.
They were one big family of travellers in a cortège of vans or caravans driving hundreds of miles from one show ton the next. And joined together by shared risk, every so often a rider would not return; comradeship; lack of money but hope - a dream they would pick up a works ride and be in the money.
But survival depended on start money. A lot of riders were on little more than £20 a race - for an ordinary worker about two weeks wages - but it was needed to get to the next meeting several hundred miles away. And feed the family. Fortunately tyres lasted several meetings, petrol and oil companies like Castrol, Shell and BP were reasonably generous with their product, and if you finished well up there was the odd bonus.
Irishman Chris Goosen was refused money by the East German organisers - it was then behind the Iron Curtain - they were confronted by Hailwood and Jack Findlay with the message “Pay up or we don’t ride.” They paid. That’s how it was in the family.
Goosen said: ”We all knew each other. There were no barriers. I never raced against Ollie because I had a couple of Bultacos and he was in the bigger classes with his Nortons so we were at opposite ends of the paddock. But he was a lovely man and great fun.”
Rex Butcher, who spent 1967/68 in Europe, said :”I think I got to know Ollie best when we started playing golf together! But I remember him being at Monza in 1968 when I broke the speed record on Paul Dunstall’s Dominator. He was a very engaging and clever guy.”
Ron Chandler, one-time King of Brands, recalled his experiences with Ollie on the Continent: “I think I was a better rider but I used to run out of road a lot! But he was good. Later we did a lot of parades, me with a G50 and Ollie with his Manx. Angela and Bobby came along with us. It was great fun.”
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ollie’s funeral will be a very private affair. Tressa, who was only allowed into the hospital for a few hours before he died, said: ”We will try to have some celebrations of his life later. I encourage all of you to support charities like Prostate Cancer to promote men to start talking and to get tested.”