Vintage Racing Motorcycles And Sidecars Gather En Masse At The Hockenheim Classic
Photography by Frederik Dulay
Nobody lays on a festival like the Germans. Anyone who’s been to Oktoberfest, either in Deutschland or in export form, knows that our Bavarian cousins can really throw a party. But what happens when you pour some petrol into the mix? Perhaps with a dash of two-stroke and all on top of one of the finest race tracks? Well then you get the Hockenheim Classic, and for anyone with a love of historic two motorcycles, for three magical days in September the circuit formerly known as the Kurpfalzring celebrates the heroes and machines that have trodden this stage since the tarmac was first laid here in 1932.
Ok, so the Hockenheim circuit isn’t what it once was, the fabulous Ostkurve and forest sections are no more, thanks largely to the FIA safety commission and the movers and shakers in F1 throwing their toys out of the pram. But this isn’t about the circuit, this is a celebration of the mechanical things that have come here. This is about the petrol, oil, and brake fluid flowing through the veins of these fabulous old machines, and the heart at the centre, thumping away in whatever rhythm it was designed to beat. This is about the odor given off by these metal organisms and this is about their lungs and the terrific noise created when they breath. A cacophony of roaring voices that when sung together fall into a wonderful cadence.
There is a mighty plethora of bikes on show this year, and eyes are immediately drawn to the early ‘90s superbikes, the type which provided so many thrilling races around this track in their time. Memories of four- and five-bike slipstreaming action of the type only now echoed on the fastest real-road circuits of Northern Ireland. Duals happened here: Foggy vs Slight, or any other of his contemporaries, and even further back Merkel vs Rob Mac Elnea. These memories come back with ease around these machines.
Elsewhere around the paddock, it is impossible to ignore the 500cc MV Agusta 3-cylinder Grand Prix bikes, the type ridden to devastating success by Italian Giacomo Agostini. Ago isn’t riding this weekend, but there are hats and helmets adorned with his name all over the circuit, along with tributes to other riders. The international audience here this weekend was very tuned in to the heroes of old.
Back to the bikes though. There are literally hundreds. So many that you are almost blinded to some of the real gems of the meeting. Look closely though and there are some unusual and exceptional machines even relative to this fine assortment. The Aermacchi Ala’ d’Oro 350 grand prix motorcycle of the ’60s is one such bike. Although more successful with their sub-100cc racing micros, this is still a delightful piece of engineering. Unusual details to note are the way in which the fuel tank is cut out to house the carburetor bell mouth.
There is also a small-displacement Ducati Monza single cylinder machine. These bikes ranged from 160cc up to 350cc, but were most commonly seen racing in their 250cc guise. The engines on these bikes are nothing short of a work of art, as are all older Ducatis, with the shaft for the gear-driven cam visible on the outside of the motor, giving an insight into the workings within. It would be fair to say that there is somewhat of a renaissance of small machines at the Hockenheim Classic, with many a miniature piston thumper on show with an oversized rider invariably hunched over the bike, throttle flat against the stop to wring as much power as possible from the 80cc lump beneath him. Almost a novelty item these days, with their bicycle-width tires and toy-like stance, it’s easy to forget that these were once just as much an important part of the Grand Prix circus as the larger capacity bikes. They even used to race these things at the Isle of Man TT!
Despite all of the weird and wonderful equipment on display though, a special mention must be made of the sidecars. Try to explain a racing sidecar to someone who has never seen one before and you will be met with confusion. It is incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with these contraptions. After all, describing exactly what one of these chairs is and how it’s ridden does sound like something dreamt up in fantasy land. They are very real though, and they are stupendous in action as much as they are stupid to the outsider’s view. The modern incarnations are insane enough, but going back to where they came from, to these vintage pods with the passenger housed on what is really just a flat board with a wheel attached, are in their own category of insanity. The passengers of these bikes are of a different breed, flat on their board and flat out in velocity, in a plank position, with the tiniest of fairings, or hanging off in a wild cantilevered arc around corners, heads just millimeters from the asphalt. Seeing is a requirement for believing in this case.
The Hockenheim Classic will not be for everyone. It doesn’t have the twee dress-up fun of the Goodwood Revival, or the unspoilt track of the Spa-Classic, and there isn’t even a grid full of star names and heroes of the past. What it is though, is a carnival of all things mechanical and moto. It is a love letter, to the marques and engineering that has got us to the modern Grand Prix machine. It is an excellent celebration of the motorcycle in its racing outfits, and I haven’t even mentioned the cars that make up the other half of this wonderful event. Start planning your trip now, the next one is just around the corner, a new season curtain-raiser in April. You will not be disappointed!