ARCHIVE: History of the iconic 'Nifty Fifties'

Think of 50cc bikes as ‘just’ a 16-year-old’s steed at your peril – these tiddlers have seen some serious racing action over the years.

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The 1963 IOM TT saw the first and only overall win by a Japanese rider/bike combination when Mitsuo Itoh aboard a 50cc Suzuki averaged 78.81. In the same race, Bill Ivy rode the ‘Sheene Special’ which was designed and constructed the previous winter by Frank Sheene, a lifelong road racer who regularly competed across the country accompanied by his young son Barry.

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The Sheene Special finished an excellent 7th overall at an average of 61.12mph and powered by a Spanish Ducson that offered 9bhp at 11,000rpm; the bike tipped the scales at just 38.5kg.

Below, considered the greatest 50cc pilot of all time, the diminutive Spaniard Angel Nieto won the first of his 13 world titles aboard a Derbi in 1969. Weighing in at just 88lbs the liquid-cooled, two-stroke offered 11bhp at 12,000rpm via a five-speed gearbox.

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The first woman solo to compete on the IOM was Beryl Swain aboard an Italian Itom 50 at the first running of the ultra-light weight class in 1962. Crossing the line in 22nd position was a great achievement, especially after losing top gear on lap two.

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In 1961 the FIM ran an eight-race series for 50cc machines called the Coupe d’ Europe, this was won by German Ernst Degner and would be recognised as a new world championship for the following season.

The fastest machines in this period were achieving 85mph from 9bhp. Swiss rider Stefan Dorflinger took the final 50cc world championship in 1983 (replaced by 80cc in 1984) by which time his Krauser offered 21bhp and exceeded 125mph.

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In 1977 a 50cc Kreidler-powered streamliner named Black Arrowed was piloted by ex-World Champion Henk Van Kessel to an average of 134mph over a flying kilometre.

Above: For the 1967 season Suzuki had high hopes for their RK67 50-2, a 50cc parallel twin that revved to 17,500rpm topping out at 105mph: all via a 10-speed gearbox. Three machines entered the championship which they finished first, second and third. 

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