The Real Chiefs of the Mountain

Reader Contribution by Rachael Clegg
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Black Hut, one of Rachael Clegg’s art photographs from her series, Milestones, illustrating the history of the Isle of Man TT. Photographer, Ian Parry/Artist, Rachael Clegg.

It’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m standing on a plinth, naked, 1,400 feet above sea level. It’s freezing and my Indian head dress is seriously itchy. But it’s worth it: The light is beautiful and I’m near the highest point of the Isle of Man TT course.

My name’s Rachael Clegg. I’m an artist, classic motorcycle journalist, and daughter and granddaughter to TT racers Noel and Tom Clegg. Indeed, the TT course is my spiritual home. But we’re not here to talk about that …

The image Black Hut is part of an on-going series of art photographs, Milestones, that illustrate the TT’s 111-year history. Black Hut (which is the name of the location at which the image was shot on the mountain section of the TT course) celebrates one of the most important moments in motorcycle history: Indian’s victory at the 1911 Senior TT and its technological dominance of the mountain section.

Move to the mountain

The Isle of Man TT started in 1907 and initially took place on a fairly flat, 15.5-mile course. By 1911, the event had grown in size and stature, with entries from across the globe spanning dozens of motorcycle marques, from AJS to Zenith.

For the 1911 TT, organizers decided to incorporate the 1,400-foot climb (from sea level) to the top of mystical Snaefell mountain. This ascent would present a huge challenge to man and machine — a challenge that would hasten motorcycle development and profoundly shape its future forever. Indian was already ahead of the game, however, and the 1911 Isle of Man TT was dubbed “the Indian Summer” for good reason: You’ll see why as the story unfolds …

In 1911, the majority of motorcycles were belt-driven; as riders changed gear, the belt would lose tension and often slip. Furthermore, engine oil would leak onto the belt, causing the belt to slip even more.

Indian, however, had an all-chain drive and a 2-speed, countershaft gearbox — which eliminated the risk of slip and thus proved pretty handy over the IOM TT’s mountain section. The combination of the two was hugely advanced for its day and countered most of the problems associated with ascending hills on two wheels.

The challenge wasn’t just the increasing gradients, however, or the pressure to be the fastest (and survive): Road surface conditions were horrendous for both man and machine, as Frank Applebee, who won the 1912 race, explained. “The dust and the general roughness of the course made the race a terrific strain for the competitors — I think it was a far greater physical endurance test, even at the comparatively low speeds of the period. At the end of the race many competitors had to be lifted from their machines and held up,” he said in Geoff Davison’s 1947 The Story of the TT.

But the Indian machines, and their riders, passed the endurance test with flying colors. Indian’s twin-cylinder machines (with engines scaled down to the new 585cc limit imposed by the TT’s organizers that year) finished 1st, 2nd and 3rd, with Oliver Godfrey, Charles Franklin and Arthur Moorhouse in the saddle, respectively. Indian’s technical developments had paid off in dividends.

Steve Menneto, the president of today’s Indian Motorcycle, said: “Winning the 1911 Senior TT was a significant achievement for an American motorcycle company, an event dominated by European brands, and our racing heritage is a source of inspiration for all of us at Indian Motorcycle. The original founders, Hendee and Hedstrom, had a strong commitment to performance and racing. Their mindset of innovation and constantly moving forward would have given them a significant advantage as they developed a two-speed transmission to master the challenging climb of the new mountain course.”

Indian’s victory at the 1911 Isle of Man TT is one of the key moments in motorcycle history, now immortalized in Black Hut, one of 12 images in the 2019 Milestones Isle of Man TT calendar. It’s available for £25/$30 at rachaelclegg.com

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