Spending An Afternoon With Seven-Time Isle Of Man TT Winner Mick Grant And His Suzuki XR69
Photography by Will Broadhead
“It’s not as bad on the bike as it looks when you’re spectating,” the man opposite me says. I offer up a sort of half smile, trying to process what he’s just told me without his firsthand experience. He’s dressed in an old pullover and oil-stained jeans, and the lines on his face indicate that this is a man who has experienced a great deal, while his spritely nature belies it.
The topic is competing at the Isle of Man TT, and this rider’s casual description of holding onto a motorcycle at 180mph around that place can be forgiven, as this is Mick Grant, and he has won no less than seven times around the infamous Mountain Course. Mick’s attitude to navigating that most dangerous of places isn’t nonchalance though—he knows exactly what he is talking about—it is simply a matter of fact for him.
Surprisingly for someone with his record, Mick’s career wasn’t limited to being a TT specialist. When he was starting out with racing, riders would compete in all sorts of classes, and road courses could still formed part of the world championship. From his first outings in club races on a Velocette, he progressed to a career of works rides for Norton, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Honda, which had chosen him to help develop their oval-cylindered NR500. Mick’s stories of traveling to Japan and working with that revered marque are as entertaining as you would hope, however, I’ve traveled up to see Mick for this story to talk about his time with Suzuki, or more specifically, the Suzuki XR69 that he raced in Heron colors in 1982.
Suzuki gifted the bike to Mick when he retired in 1985, and “I’ve had it ever since,” he tells me. “It’s pretty much exactly as it was when they gave it to me. I’ve ridden it in parades and whatnot down the years of course, but it hasn’t been messed about with.”
Mick has decided that after having it in his possession for 36 years it’s time to put the old Suzuki up for sale. “I’m 77 this year, I’m not going to be riding for many more years, and it’s time to let it go, so it’s going to the auction house! Although I sold one of my Kawasaki racing bikes a few years ago and have regretted that ever since, so we will see!”
It will be a rare opportunity to own such an untouched machine that still wears the scars and patina of a season being campaigned across the world, and it was an honor to spend the day with Mick and his Suzuki before it goes. The bike was a lap record holder at the TT and a Northwest 200 winner, although that victory was tinged with tragedy after Mick’s teammate John Newbold was killed in practice for the race; Mick donated his winnings to his teammate’s widow.
As I pore over this special bike, I notice many exclusive factory parts, like the dry clutch that was only featured on Mick’s machine. Replicas of these bikes are ten a penny in classic race series these days, but at the time they were developed in collaboration with Pops Yoshimura, only a handful were built, and even less remain of these originals. The development of the bike saw a custom rear swinging arm built, followed by a front end from Suzuki’s grand prix bikes, and eventually a bespoke frame built to complement it all.
The carburetors nestled within are of an all-magnesium construction, and as Mick removes the signature slab-sided fuel tank from the bike, I can see eight HT leads trailing from the ignition coils, indicating that the head on this engine is twin-sparked. Further inspection reveals the holes that are drilled throughout, a classic trick to save weight, although Mick tells me that it’s still not the lightest bike in the world.
It is though, according to the man, a delight to ride, “I’d happily swing a leg over it and ride it now,” he tells me. “No starter motor though, bump start, a proper bike,” he continues, with a smile and a wink. I wonder if he has a particular type of next owner in mind, as this is a bike so close to his heart—not just an asset coldly bought and sold. “It would be nice if it was someone who intended to use it, so the public could still see it, and because it is ready to go and so nice to ride. It puts out around 130 brake, which is nothing by today’s standards.” I hope the same, and I hope that it will be something that the public can get close to as well as it is such a tactile piece of history, rewarding every new look at it with another detail of its construction, or indication of its former life as a top-level piece of racing machinery.
As we look around the bike together, all sorts of aspects from Mick’s career are brought up in our conversation, the anecdotes and stories flowing from a well of them. He tells me about the transition from rider to team manager, and how that was “the worst job in the world,” but also rewarding seeing the careers of the likes of James Whitham and Steve Plater blossom.
Most recently Mick was involved with Norton, although he’s keen to point out that it was very much only on the development of the race bike and not the commercial operation. I carefully consider asking him about the fallout at Norton, as this isn’t the tabloid press, but he speaks candidly about that and about other things. His opinion, whilst forthright and very honest, is always considered and informed and often different to what you might expect.
This year for instance, Mick tells me that for the first time he hasn’t got any commitments with racing, and so is going to enjoy a full season competing on his twin-shock trials bike, a passion that he indulges every weekend and seemingly every day as well. As a self-taught engineer, he tells me he just “loves developing things,” and is constantly changing the bike and making new parts for it. Perhaps no matter what age and what figurative and literal mountains they’ve conquered, some can never truly get motorsport out of their system. As Mick demonstrates, you can get rid of your professional commitments and sell your race bike, but there’s always something more important that remains.