This 96-year old Douglas is not only fun for the rider and his family, but it also makes everyone watching smile and gives any competitors a run for their money! Proving that these bikes should be used and not tucked away, meet the Douglas DT5…
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Words and photos by Matt Hull With many thanks to Matt, Betty and John Walton
An ex-colleague from when working in the modern bike press once asked if the old bike world ever became boring. “After all, there’s nothing new; no exciting new models, no use of a new technology to research and report about.” I laughed aloud while vehemently shaking my head. But then I had to ask myself: “They have a point. Why is this world of oily, out-of-date, and often unreliable old hacks as much fun as we find them?”
You, the readers, rightly make it quite clear that old bike magazines should be about old bikes – the metal. Selfishly, to bring this to you I experience that thrill of the model and its history, the riding impression, the restoration, added to by meeting the people behind the bikes, their reasons for loving them, and the continuing fun that old bikes provide them. When meeting up with someone to photograph and talk about their bike, you are often invited into their home, shown family photographs where the bike has become part of the family, of their history. You are allowed into their lives, their past. You feel the reason behind a collection, where the virtues or qualities of a model can tempt someone. You even see people questioning why they have so many! And sometimes, it can just be the pure love of old things; of intrigue, of old stuff.
“We love old stuff, and sometimes, to get stuff, you need to buy more stuff to get the stuff you want.” Matt Walton and his uncle, John, along with Matt’s fiancée (and by now Mrs Walton – many congratulations!) have a wonderful, eclectic collection of cars and bikes. WO-era Bentleys dominate their passion and Matt even races one, while another, a tourer, was used for Christmas shopping duties in London a couple of years back. A drop head, that is. In the West End. In winter. John has spent much time this year touring Africa in one, with friends in theirs. It is fantastic to hear of these incredible machines being used for what they were designed for.
Past the cars, an AJS 7R, and a Rudge Multi is an old Transit van which I’m asked to follow as Matt and Betty jump in. We track down the lane, where a turning to a small, grass airfield lies. Matt and Betty then pull out the machine of the day, a Douglas DT5 from 1928. While cameras are readied, Matt and Betty fiddle and fettle. Taps on, a little tickling, finding TDC and then a healthy push – BRRRUUUUMMMM!
An airstrip is the perfect place to play with a bike that has power and acceleration, but no brakes. You can’t even use the gears to slow as it doesn’t have any. Matt is tall and the Douglas particularly low, so it looks even faster. After warming, most runs sound well sorted and cleanly carburated, but occasionally there is a fluff or a splutter. A competition bike is a temperamental maiden to please, even one that’s 96 years old.
Bloody hell, it’s quick. It pulls, you can hear it – there’s no such powerband, but from watching it seems an endless spread of power. There doesn’t seem to be any clutch slipping, either. But being designed for oval racing, heat will always be an issue and the engine has such small fins. So Matt has some fun over several runs, each with a little tweaking, then makes some noise. I try to get some photos to portray the glorious sight and sound I’m witnessing, we all have a smile, and then it gets turned off. In this open countryside, where noises are few, the ticking of cooling metal and the sizzling of escaping oil and total loss system (there is a Pilgrim oil pump, too) are testimony to how this near-century-old competitor has just worked. Oh, and the smell is wonderous – well, to us…
After playing, naturally comes tea. John and Matt fill me in with the history of their DT5; A friend of the family who has five Douglas competition bikes has helped fill in the gaps. He says a number left the factory new, intended to be speedway bikes, while a few left that were meant to be grass track bikes. He thinks this was a grass track bike that someone used to race in speedway and then turned it back into a grass track bike; while the engine is the same, many parts have been clamped on, as opposed to being brazed or soldered on as would have been originally.
“Speedway and grass track racing were huge,” says John. Matt has attempted to research the model as it’s just so unusual. Board tracks quickly made way to grass tracks or speedway tracks because the board tracks were so dangerous. Australia enjoyed speedway, so some started moving over, bringing their love of the sport too and helping it grow in the UK.
Many people have no idea what it is, but you find out more over time. After going to the Malle Mile event this year, Matt and Betty met a chap whose grandad raced a Douglas in speedway before the war but, like so many things, it went missing afterwards. “But he was thrilled to see ours,” they say, “and he did send some photos of his grandfather racing.”
Coming from a farming background, Matt, like many, made use of space and learned to ride at a very early age, starting quickly with breeze blocks and pallets and then moving to cars, when, aged 16 and still without a road licence, he won the Autocar magazine Sideways Challenge. Matt competed in the drifting competition against seasoned racers like future touring car champions Jason Plato and held his head high.
Is this competition machine a family heirloom? No. “There was a collection of bikes for sale with the Douglas and a 1920 Rudge Multi, the ones we liked, but with the lockdowns it had to be sold as a whole. Many have been sold on, which is great as bikes that couldn’t have gone to good owners because they were all together have now been able to.”
And Matt and John have kept their favourites. “We knew nothing about them at first,” says Matt, “but I liked the Rudge for its early charm, with the early controls. I’m hoping to use it in the paddock when racing the Bentley!”
When they first saw the Douglas, it didn’t run – a by-product of being sat for 30 to 50 years. But a good friend who restores and looks after classic and vintage cars and bikes – as well as being a rather keen Douglas collector – helped get it back in running order.
This was no restoration, however, as John and Matt just wanted it checked over, cleaned out, fuelled, lubricated, and running if possible. The DT5 was remarkably straightforward, and with the bare minimum of work, was soon moving. After that, and with life, the world and work, it sat in John’s workshop for another 18 months… that is, until the Malle Mile event called.
Here at Classic Bike Guide, Maria and I are big fans of this unique weekend event, which is loosely based around some light-hearted off-road competition with ‘inappropriate’ bikes. A friend said to Betty and Matt that they might enjoy it, having seen photos on social media but not really knowing anything about it – but they needed a bike with knobblies on it. “Take the Douglas,” smiled John, when asked. “But will it run?” asked Matt. “Course it will,” smiled John some more.
With one week to go, Matt spent several days sorting it, removing the speedway knee braces as he’s so tall, adjusted the clutch, checked it over and poured some fuel in. It didn’t run very nicely, so spark plugs, jets and the usual culprits were played with, the mag was then suspected of not giving that strong a spark, and then there was some crap in the carb. “A little bit of everything was stopping it from running sweetly. When it did start sounding all right, we ran out of fuel. In the end, we pushed it into the van, dropped in at a friend’s and picked up 20 litres of methanol, and headed to the Malle Mile,” laughs Matt. There, Matt, Betty and the Douglas rode in The Mile – a straight sprint, uphill on grass. Simple. The start is just like an old-school sprint, where your left hand must stay touching your helmet until the Union Jack flag is dropped. It’s then clutch in, engage first, and beat the bike – that’s randomly picked – next to you.
The weather was sunny, and the crowds had built up, including Maria, Butch and I. Hundreds of bikes lined up to compete, from Monkey bikes to ridiculous self-builds made just for the weekend. It was a spectacle to enjoy, from the bikes to the skill – or not – of the launches! The experience of a man in fancy dress who wheelied his bike uncontrollably and then landed on his homemade sissy bar is eye-watering… he was very lucky, if embarrassed and bruised, when we saw him later.
“I’d just borrowed this bike from John and said to myself to just have a gentle laugh and take nothing seriously,” says Matt, “but then you get on the start line, the competitive spirit comes out… and you just have to win!”
The low Douglas, with its large wheels and straight through pipes, simply caught everyone’s attention. Most didn’t know what it was; many hadn’t seen a bike almost 100 years old and certainly not one that fast. It also helped that Matt needed Betty (herself a Triumph Bonneville rider) to push-start the high-compression competition bike – who happened to be wearing a summer dress. “I’d have been screwed if it wasn’t for Betty,” smiles Matt.
The Douglas, with Matt on board, beat everyone who was drawn against it… this 98-year-old machine, complete with a competent racer aboard, built for getting into the first corner first. “I didn’t have to slip the clutch, I just let it out gently and the torque just pulled it away – one gear didn’t prove to be a problem and pulled to the top easily,” says Matt. Only in the last race did the Douglas come second, partly due to running low on fuel (they’d used 20 litres just in the seven or eight heats) and the victor went on to win The Mile. It’s events like the Malle Mile where the Douglas can be seen impressing a crowd that largely know nothing of them, and that will help stoke the fires of riders who haven’t yet discovered old bikes. The crowd loved it.
Now, the bike still isn’t running happily. It is meant to run on a mix of methanol (methyl alcohol) and nitro (nitromethane) mix. “But it’s just lethal, goes off quickly, will melt the engine potentially if you get the blend wrong, and that’s if you can get it,” explains Matt. Model aeroplanes and even model cars use it. It may also be suffering from a slight over-oiling, but that is a safer bet than the other way.
Plans for the Douglas are limited to taking the engine out and apart in an attempt to make it slightly more oil tight. Any parts needed should be available through their Douglas-expert friend, who also wants to rebuild some of his own. And then? Get it out to events and enjoy it some more… if Betty is still happy to pus-start! What better than to see a bike doing what it was designed to do 100 years ago? Full throttle and in front of full crowds, what fun.