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Today in Motorcycle History

Eric Langton and Douglas Speedway Bikes

Eric Langton is a name that is not usually associated with Dirt Track Duggies. From the earliest days of speedway, Eric and his brother Oliver realised that a short wheelbase single gave more traction and drive out of the corners than a long wheelbase twin. The wildly sliding Douglas was more spectacular, but, by 1930, Rudges and JAPs were winning more races.

However, a promoter's priorities are different to those of a rider. Spectacle is everything if you want to introduce a new sport to a country that has never seen speedway. So, when A.J. Hunting and Jack Nelson decided to promote a speedway tour of South American countries during the 1930-31 Christmas break, they stipulated that only twin cylinder machines would be eligible.

The Langton brothers were Rudge experts by this time, but for a lucrative contract in the English off season, it was time to switch camps; temporarily at least. Nearly every major British manufacturer was marketing a speedway machine, but only three of them were twins. These were the Scott, the vee-twin James and, the inevitable Douglas. Scotts were scarce and only Frank Varey had achieved any success on them. The attractive little James had failed to make any impact and there was a glut of Douglas bits and pieces on the market; so the choice was obvious. Eric started collecting bits and pieces at Belle Vue track in Manchester, in order to build a Douglas to his own liking back home in Leeds.

LEFT: Eric Langton in Argentina where the promoters wanted only twins.

He had tried a DT Douglas previously, but found the frame was too flexy, resulting in frequent chain derailments. Douglas had special chains made with triangular extended side plates to counteract this tendency. Sprouts Elder had also found this to be a problem and had switched to the stiffer, but heavier, TT Douglas frame with taper roller head races. Eric acquired a TT frame (OF 110) and gearbox from Sprouts, a DT crankcase (EL749) and crankshaft assembly from Arthur Franklin and, he was away.

The first priority was to get more traction, so Eric shortened the frame to an absolute minimum by cutting one and a half inches out of the four longitudinal frame tubes and shortening the rear chain stays. This resulted in a wheelbase of 53 inches; longer than a Rudge, but 3 inches shorter than a standard DT Douglas. A set of Webb speedway forks was added, a 23 inch front rim and a 22 inch rear, on British Hub Company speedway hubs. With a neat little square petrol tank, the Langton Douglas was born.
Special cams gave the engine a remarkable performance when fully sorted.

Some of the other riders who took part in the South American adventure were Bob Harnson and Frank Varey from Belle Vue, Frank Goulden from Southampton, Dick Wise from Adelaide, Buzz Hibberd from NSW, Sprouts Elder (USA), Max Grosskreutz from Queensland, Roberto Sigrand, Arthur and Hubert Jarvis, Ivor Creek and Dusty Haigh. All except Varey rode Douglases. The tracks they raced on were at River Plate and Huracon in Buenos Aires and, Montevideo in Uruguay. Buenos Aires and Montevideo are separated by the 120 miles wide Rio de la Plate and the riders crossed back and forth by ferry five or six times during the season.

In the early races, young Roberto Sigrand surprised everyone with the performance of his Douglas. When Eric asked him why his bike was so much faster than the others, he confided that he was using a special camshaft made by his father a French engineer of some ability. Eric was quick to acquire one of these, but found that the lift was so great that the cam would not fit through the bearing housing! Rather than file out the bearing housing, Eric reduced the height of the cam by hand grinding. The new cam gave timing of 25:65:80:30; compared to the standard DT timing of 10:50:63:20. When fully sorted it gave remarkable performance.

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LEFT*: Paul Reeds fine restoration of the Langton Duggie which has been rebuilt as a T.T. model whilst still retaining the D.T Engine.

In Eric's words, "The wheelbase was shortened to give better handling, i.e. less broadside angle. I was never one to like to have the thing on full lock and in that respect, it was quite good. However, even with Webb forks it wasn't easy to control a front wheel slide and demanded a `power-on' entry to the bend. The only time I fell off it was at River Plate, which was fairly deep brick dust and the exhaust pipe dug in and tipped me off going into the pit bend. I bent up some fancy equal length exhaust pipes, which gave more lean before grounding, as well as cleaning up the carburation. By the end of the season, most of the Douglases had found new homes with local riders. By Grand Final night I was the only one still on a Douglas, the others having gone back to Rudges but I was determined to keep faith with the promoters and finished up collecting all the trophies."

When he returned to England, Eric also reverted to Rudges and, later, JAPs, on which he was runner-up on equal points to Lionel Van Praag in the first World Speedway Championship in 1936. Eric never stopped modifying his JAP motors for more performance, even to the extent of casting his own cylinder head to achieve a narrower valve angle while retaining the looks of the standard item. He took great delight in leaving the bike in the pits with the head removed to expose the low crown piston; fooling other riders into believing he was using a very low compression ratio.

He rode the Douglas in special exhibition races at Halifax, Sheffield and Belle Vue and Squib Burton and his son Jolui both rode it at Leicester Stadium. The bike is now restored as a TT model in keeping with its frame number, but still with the DT motor. The most noticeable difference being that the TT motor carries its oil in a cast aluminium sump below the lower frame tubes. It now has Douglas twin spring forks, Douglas servo brakes and a flywheel clutch.

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