The Circuit Breaker
By Sean Mooney: He’s a 19-time New Zealand motorcycle road racing national champion. He was crowned Grand Prix World Champion no less than four times, winning 25 GPs along the way. Oh, and he’s a two-time winner of a little island sprint known as the Isle of Man TT… All of which makes Hugh Anderson, MBE, an absolute legend in anyone’s books. But the 82 year old is a man with human frailties and emotional baggage just like anyone else, challenges that Anderson believes drove him to risk so much to achieve success.
“Due to suffering from thoughtless criticism by an elder sister and others, I was different in many ways to my much older siblings. I suffered from low self-esteem,” he explains. “By succeeding in motorcycle racing, I felt that perhaps a sense of balance could be achieved. In due course, I became prepared to die to prove – to myself, I suppose – that I was equal, and not a fool, idiot or worse.”
Anderson certainly has nothing left to prove, to himself or anyone else. He was named world champion in the 50cc and 125cc classes in 1963, then again in 50cc in 1964 and 125cc in 1965. All the skill required to achieve these feats was developed by sliding a 1927 350cc Douglas on full lock around on the wet paddocks of his family’s farm as a child. And wringing every last horse out of his future brother-in-law’s 1937 350cc New Imperial.
His love of and ability to ride motorcycles gave Anderson the opportunity to escape from what he describes as “the foolish gossip and total lack of vision rife in a country village at the time”. He headed to the other side of the world in the early sixties and “found friendship and acceptance within the European racing fraternity”.
In this environment, Anderson recalls, “if you were an above-average rider your earnings were sufficient to get by on – sponsorship was not readily available – even if it meant living in your van and having just two meals a day”. “Then the Japanese factories arrived, a new beginning. The top few riders were swept up in a totally new period where riders, at last, had real value. The crowds grew dramatically as we moved into a rich, new era that encompassed the world.”
Anderson rubbed shoulders with many strong-minded, independent men in the top echelon of riders, but he witnessed what pressure and poor decisions could do to even the strongest competitor. “One chap married the wrong woman and suffered from it,” he says. “He was shouted at and slapped in the face in full view of others, immediately prior to a race. He was a good rider but slid away to a lower level; divorce and nastiness followed.”
Then there were the deaths on the track – riders like Bobby Brown, Dave Chadwick, Dickie Dale and Colin Meeham. “I feel the absence and loss of my fellow riders,” Anderson says. “An unusually close bond emerges after having close races, over time, with some of your competitors. It’s a closeness based on trust. After racing for up to an hour in close proximity, down to millimetres at times, then later being able to laugh together about it is remarkable.”
Anderson came to believe that risk is a “man thing”; something that particularly excites and stimulates men, and can lead to their downfall. This view crystallised on his first visit to the Isle of Man. “I had a very limited time to learn the 37-mile circuit,” he remembers. “To gain a satisfactory result, I was prepared to take risks. I wanted to ride there from when I was 10 years old, so I was not going to let myself down. There was self-doubt; how could a kid from the New Zealand country side walk in the shoes of his heroes? At the island, you need courage to take the steps required. A small error will hurt if not kill you. By qualifying fifth fastest in practice, I caused considerable concern regarding my wellbeing. Advice to slow down came from all quarters.”
It would be many decades later that Anderson was diagnosed as a “text-book case of a manic depressive”, something that did not surprise Janny, his wife of more than 50 years. The former nurse is not only from Holland but from Assen, home of the Dutch TT where, as Anderson explains, “a Grand Prix rider is respected for his skill and courage”. “A racer thrives on being surrounded by positive people, and Janny gave me her total unfailing support. Being in the presence of her beauty and personality lifted me to a level of self-confidence that I had never before known. During the race season following our wedding, I won two world championships. Being multilingual and a trained nurse, and having inherited the courage and common sense of her father [who worked in the underground in WW2], Janny was, to me, the perfect partner.”
Since he left the professional circuit in the late 1960s, Anderson has been content riding his 1953 Vincent Rapide, aa well as a 1947 500cc Triumph Speed Twin that is identical to the bike he rode when he was 14 years old. He also owns a 1939 500cc Ariel and a 650cc Honda Dominator. “At the moment, I am content with the machines I have,” he claims. “Their maintenance is akin to caring for good friends.” But, it must be said, he wouldn’t mind getting his hands on his dream machine, an SS100 Brough Superior from the late 1920s.
Clearly, Anderson is uniquely qualified to comment on the massive changes that have occurred in the motorcycling world over the years. “In the early days, a motorcycle was basic transport that became, over time, an avenue to freedom, adventure and friendship. Then you got married,” he laughs. “Today it would seem that the buyer is older. His purchase gives him that essential sense of freedom and the feeling of power derived from a gentle twist of the right-hand grip.”
However, Anderson says, the modern rider still seeks a sense of unity, of belonging, which “is not satisfied with club membership, if in fact they are a member of one”. This is where initiatives such as Full Tank Moto become important, he adds, representing “the ideal of giving to, in this case, a neglected health issue.” Having lost his older brother to prostate cancer, Anderson feels strongly that riders must come together to improve men’s health, and that in doing we can lift the standing of motorcycling in the community.
“It displays a maturity that some sections of society choose not to be aware of, and opens the door of welcome to those who may benefit from a gentle nudge to join a movement that has values not before seen,” he says. “It’s a cause that unites us all, and that freedom we enjoy is exemplified in our freedom to give.”
Hugh Anderson’s autobiography Being There is available to order via email at firstname.lastname@example.org