BUILT FOR SPEED: More than 80 years ago, in 1926, Harry Lee Kim Hoi’s father nearly raced in one of the most prestigious motorcycle races of his time. He tells Arman Ahmad the story
MY father once nearly raced in the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. Even today, it is considered one of the toughest, most demanding races in the world. The year was 1926, and if he had done it, he would have been the first Asian to have participated. Unfortunately, it never happened. He had everything prepared including the bike but I am not sure why it all fell through.
My father’s name was Lee Soon Lee, and he was born on June 30, 1902. He grew up in Malacca. As a young man, he was consumed with a passion for speed. It was the early days of the automobile and motorcycles, and my father loved both of them. Particularly, it was the thrill of racing that excited him. He raced both, and in total won easily more than three dozen trophies if I remember correctly.
I remember these silver trophies gleaming brightly in our house at Cheng in Malacca. They were made from real silver, but unfortunately, over the years some of them have disappeared.
My sister, (Datuk) Kim Chan, told us that they were all from the years prior to 1940; in the 1920s and 1930s to be more precise. In those days in Malaysia, there were no circuit races so the trophies were probably won in Hill Climbs, Gymkhanas, Sprints and Time Trials.
Races were done mostly in Selangor. There was the sprint and hillclimb on Gurney Hill and a road race known as the Lornie Mile in Kuala Lumpur. (The Lornie Mile was scrapped in 1956, after the police decided to ban the race because the surface was corrugated and bad. Intsead the Selangor Motor Sports club organised a kilometre-long race from what was known as the Chinese School to Brickfields bridge.)
In those days, there were no dedicated tracks. Grand Prix racing then were mostly on close streets like the Isle of Man, Irish 100 and others.
In our country, the earliest road circuit race was the Johor GP track. Later on, another circuit was created — namely the Thomson Road Circuit in Singapore.
The first proper circuit was supposed to be Batu Tiga but if I remember correctly, its construction was delayed for a while. So while waiting for it to be ready they turned the roads of the yet to be completed housing estates in Subang into temporary circuits.
In those days, my father was a rather wealthy man. From what I was made to understand — his income was something like RM1,000 a month — which was a fortune in those days.
I didn’t really know what he did, because I was very young then. My father and I had a big age gap. I was born when he was in his 40s. But I did know that it was something to do with cars and motorbikes. In later years, when I was older, he sold cars.
In his youth, he had no children, so he had a lot of money to spend. I guess that’s how he could afford his passion.
Since he had won so many races, he was also probably one of the most promising asipirants to compete at the Isle of Man. It was like how the pinnacle for local badminton players was the All England and for tennis, it was Wimbledon.
But he had other hobbies and interests as well. He was part of a keroncong band. He also loved travelling. In those days, he travelled by steamship.
I remember seeing big old leather travelling bags which were full of labels and showed that he had been to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macau, London and Paris.
Of course, his passion for speed flows in my veins as well. As I grew up, I too discovered that speed was a passion that overwhelmed me. From the first time I got on a bike, and twisted the throttle, I found riding came to me naturally. The sensation of speed made everything else dull in comparison.
My dad first bought me a Honda 125 Sports when I was in Form Five. Later, I took over my elder brother’s Norton Navigator 350 (the one in the picture). I sold this and bought a Yamaha YDS 250, one of the first, if not the first, in Malaysia.
For racing, my late friend bought a standard Suzuki 250, then popularly known as Suzuki Super Six as it was then the first production bike with a 6-speed gearbox. It was so powerful it used to sweep all the Production Bike races in Europe, beating even bikes twice or three times its engine capacity. We then ordered racing parts from UK, like pistons, expansion chambers, sprockets, chains and other items to turn it into a real racing machine.
Even though I was a privateer, I was fully supported by Guan Hoe Suzuki Melaka. My bike was wholly prepared by their mechanics. For races, they provided me with a pick-up truck to transport the bikes, and a full-time mechanic to look after the bikes and drive the truck.
You notice I used the word “bikes”. This is because I was racing in three Classes; the 100cc class, the 250cc class and the Grand Prix (or open class). The Yamaha dealer in Malacca wanted me to ride their 100cc Yamaha for the 100cc Class but when Guan Hoe Suzuki came to know about it, they prepared a Suzuki 100 specially for me to ride in that class. This all ended one fateful day — at a race during the Johor Grand Prix. I was riding my Suzuki T20 250cc two stroker. After a few laps the engine was misfiring. I wanted to stop, and was turning into the pit when legendary racer Ou Teck Weng came barrelling in from behind me. I was thrown from my bike and lay on the track unconscious. When I came to, I was in the hospital. The brake pedal had pierced my leg. That was the end of my racing days.
But it wasn’t the end of motorcycles in the Lee family.
When my son Kevin grew up, I saw the same twinkle in his eye whenever he rode a bike. I think I first bought him a scrambler; a Suzuki TS125 and then a Yamaha RXZ. His mum then bought him that Honda with the licence plate MN 81. Now I remember, it was a VT 250. VT is for V-Twin as they have a 500 cc model known as VF 500, a V-Four! It was a fantastic bike in those days. When he moved to Kuala Lumpur to work, I gave him my Honda Accord Hatchback. I think he gave up biking then to concentrate on building his career, until he started again a few years back. Now he still rides, just like his grandfather, and his father. He has a BMW GS 1200, an adventure bike. Sometimes he rides back from KL and visits us. He has ridden to several countries on it. Every time he sets off into the sunset, packed up and decked up in his riding gear, I can’t help smiling. I guess motorcycles are in our blood. I’m sure it is.