John Hartle

Hartle “Caution and Hope”
John Hartle, born December 22nd 1933 in Chapel-en-le-Frith, Derbyshire, was a motorcyclist with the best of reputations in the 1950s and 1960s and a man that was destined to succeed in his chosen sport, despite a number of setbacks and a lot of bad luck. His career and life were tragically cut short at an early age but he is still fondly remembered, over four decades on, as the county’s best rider.

John Hartle's Plaque - Photo by David Humphries

John Hartle’s Plaque – Photo by David Humphries

John Hartle’s growing passion for bikes.
Motorbikes and racing were clearly in Hartle’s blood from an early age. He left school at seventeen to work on bikes for Eric Bowers, where he made a life-long friend from a young boy called Peter Dale. Together they would race their bikes through the streets and a combination of Hartle’s ability and the youth of Dale crafted John into a consistent winner with a developing love of riding. Peter’s only victory came when John sacrificed his position to avoid a pedestrian and suffered the first of many racing injuries – an act that would start an unfortunate pattern. He soon turned his love of road racing onto professional circuits and in 1953 he competed at the Yorkshire Brough Airfield and the Isle of Man GP, where he won the Newcomers Award.

Even National Service could not stop him riding. There were calls for John Hartle to serve his country and, after an initial attempt to avoid this career-threatening possibility by working in the coal pits, he later joined up in the only capacity that could suit his abilities and make him happy – he became an army motorcycle dispatch rider instructor and his team, Norton, was able to negotiate his release for UK events. Hartle got off pretty lightly and found the ideal solution that meant he could fulfil his requirements and work on his passion and blossoming career. His success was now taking him around the country but he always kept a part of Derbyshire with him as he raced to show his pride, his trademark white helmet being emblazoned with the Chapel-en-le-Frith coat of arms.

Elite rider John Hartle

Elite rider John Hartle

The highs and lows of John’s professional racing career.
The first major race of John’s career was in Scarborough, a course that would become influential in his life and legacy in many ways, and he steadily built up his tally of podium positions across the late 1950s. He showed promise by reaching an impressive 6th in the IOM TT as a junior in 1956 and spectators and riders could not help but notice him at the Ulster GP that same year when he came second. From 1957 he began riding for Norton for a little while, until his bikes came up short against the other models of his competitors, and he soon made a move to MV. This choice proved to be worthwhile and he soon earned himself another second place finish, this time at the World Championships, and became the first Englishman to break 100mph. Hartle came close to being world champion numerous times, had the joy of racing all across Europe and returned to the IOM TT in 1960 to record his first win; however, this was to be his peak as the 1960s saw him start out on a slippery, dangerous, downhill slope.

Hartle’s riding was characteristic in many respects because he had his own sense of style around the track and is viewed by many as being a very unlucky rider. In addition to the coat of arms, his helmet had the Latin motto Cava et Spera, “caution and hope”, a phrase that was sadly fitting. During the 60s, as John was maturing as a rider, competitors around him were beginning to adapt to the bikes and courses and adopt new ways of riding; Hartle, however, stuck to the classic way of riding and never let go of the techniques and positioning he had perfected throughout the 1950s.

His bad luck should have been expected, particularly for a man that failed his motorcycle test six times, and crashes were not uncommon with John, but ever since that initial accident, avoiding the woman in Chapel, he had found himself swerving to avoid obstacles and riders and coming off worst. His record for the 1960s is marked by absences, injuries and comebacks – the worst being a fractured skull in 1964 that forced him into a short-lived “retirement” until 1967 – and this pattern continued until the fateful day he returned once more to the the track in Scarborough.

His death and ongoing legacy in motorbike racing.
On August 31st 1968, when he was just 34 years old, Hartle died on the racetrack at Scarborough. He was always destined to be one of the greats in the sport, and many rightfully hoped that he would go on to have a much longer career with even more success, but that relentless strain of bad luck struck again. John was racing in the 500cc race at Oliver’s Mount when he once again made a manoeuvre to avoid somebody else, this time a rider with a mechanical fault, and collided with the bridge supports. It was a fatal injury that was somehow to be expected given his career history but one that was still a shock to the racing community.

Only a young man himself, John left behind a young family, including his widow Shelagh and daughter Lesley, and, following his cremation, his ashes were scattered in the garden of remembrance at Northampton crematorium and the TT course on the Isle of Man. In 1969, Shelagh was awarded a special trophy in his honour but this was just the first of many memorials over the following decades, one of the more recent being a plaque that was unveiled in 2010 on the New Inn in his hometown of Chapel by Lesley and his old friend Peter Dale before a large crowd. It is no surprise that so many were present because the memory of John Hartle lives on with many motorcycle racing fanatics. Supporters share their memories of his races and find ways to commemorate his achievements and bold spirit. He was well-loved by admirers as much for his success and podium places as his willingness to stop and sign autographs and speak to his fans and it is the unlucky, determined, approachable man that is fondly remembered, not just the rider.