George Begg's first love: motorcycles

16th June 2020

Most motorsport enthusiasts might know Southlander George Begg thanks to his race car construction glory days back in the 1960s and 1970s: and in fact, our brand-new George Begg Bunker here at Classic Motorcycle Mecca is the single-largest display of vehicles built by the Kiwi motorsport legend.

But George Begg himself was the first to admit it was motorcycles, not race cars, that really got his engine humming.

He once told Old Bike magazine: “I just love the people (associated with bikes). There was no one-upmanship and there were no superstars who wiped their boots on everyone else. Friendship abounded. They were marvellous guys.”
Our George Begg Bunker is a multi-faceted look at the legendary Southland engineer: taking in his race car construction days, innovative engineering business, his family and personal life. Visitors to Classic Motorcycle Mecca will also learn a lot about Begg’s love for the world of motorcycles.

George Begg’s motorcycling days began all the way back in 1948, when – like many young men of his day – he turned to motorcycles as a cheap mode of transport to take him to and from his job as an apprentice fitter and turner in Dunedin. His older brother sold him a 1929 BSA Sloper, and that was the start of a lifelong passion for everything two-wheeled.

His enthusiasm for motorcycling and his natural knack for the mechanical meant Begg absorbed myriad details about bikes and bike racing – especially the Isle of Mann TT (Tourist Trophy) races. Again, though he didn’t know it at the time, his goal of taking part in the famed race would have a lifelong impact on him. Begg’s desire to race soon led to his trading the BSA Sloper for a 1938 Royal Enfield Silver Bullet 500cc single, which he used to compete in club races. The Royal Enfield Silver Bullet – which Begg tinkered with and modified – was soon joined by a BSA Golden Flash 650 twin.

In 1952, when George Begg finished his apprenticeship, he and close friend Doug Johnson decided to chase their fortune further north. They moved about New Zealand for a time, eventually basing themselves in Taumarunui, and the pair’s collection of motorcycles grew.

Begg took his first serious step into racing with the purchase of a 500cc Triumph GP twin, before he and Johnson decided to go halves in an ex-Len Perry 1939 Velocette KTT and then a Norton Manx 500cc. After Johnson opted to head back to his hometown, due to a family bereavement, it was time for Begg to decide what step he wanted to take next. He returned to Winton, keeping the Velocette KTT for racing and record attempts at Oreti Beach, but a bigger plan was hatching.

For Begg, the time to chase his dream – competing in the Isle of Man – had arrived. After a stint in Kawerau, he sold up and in 1955 set sail for Britain alongside another good mate, Bob Cook.

While travelling from Southmapton to Liverpool (where he was set to disembark for the Isle of Man), Begg called into the AJS factory to collect his new pride and joy: an AJS 7R 350cc racer, for which he forked out £336 ($672). The bikes were renowned for being competitive, fast, good-handling, and reliable racing motorcycles.

That year, Begg took part in the Manx Grand Prix races for amateur riders: an exhilirating experience. He earned a mid-field result in both the junior (350) and senior (500) GPs and garnered a bronze finisher’s medallion for each.

After the Manx races, Begg and Cook headed back to England, where they competed in a variety of club events – including going toe-to-toe with some rather famous names, including Duke and Surtees. The pair worked a series of engineering jobs to support themselves, and their interest in competing. Both Begg and Cook competed in the GP again in 1956: Begg again received a finisher’s medallion, while Cook won a silver winner’s replica for his 25th place.

Equally importantly, it was during this stint at the Isle of Man that Begg struck up a friendship with a local girl, Freda.

Tragically, just a few months after the Isle of Man Cook was killed in a racing accident at the Aintree circuit near Liverpool: a shattering blow to his friend Begg.

George Begg’s heart was no longer in it. He competed in the Ulster Grand Prix of 1956 – he and Cook had already paid their entry fees – before hanging up his helmet.

That December, George and Freda Begg were married. Begg spent a few months working at the Rolls Royce factory on the Isle of Man before the pair set sail to build a new life together in New Zealand in April 1957.

Make sure you don't miss the George Begg Bunker here at Classic Motorcycle Mecca. Find out more here.