Luigi Taveri in 1954 on a Norton 350cc – the Swiss was a rare guest at world championship races in the 1950s. This would change drastically in the following decade and he became a defining figure in Grand Prix racing in the 1960s. But by 1954 he was to be much more successful than the Ticino native from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland had previously expected.

Before the third World Cup season with German participation

Since it is difficult for some people today to talk about a motorcycle world championship for the first three years from 1949 that really deserves this name, things really started for the first time in 1952. Due to the political situation after the Second World War, the Germans, the most successful nation in recent years, were excluded from Grand Prix sport by the FIM until 1939. Before the fourth season, the World Cup was more like an international match between Italy and Great Britain. But after a year of start-up with only partial participation from the factories and drivers, NSU in particular got off to a very impressive start thanks to Werner Haas, who was only included in the factory team for the German GP. The Italian dominance in the smaller categories up to 125 and 250cc was immediately over. This meant that MV Agusta, Moto-Morini and Moto-Guzzi found themselves in an unfamiliar role as pursuers before the start of the 1954 season. Three weeks before the first Grand Prix of the year in Reims, the dress rehearsal took place for the Germans at the Hockenheimring, where Haas won both the 125cc and the race up to 250cc and Ray Amm (Norton) entered the 350cc his ambitions to get more than third place in the world championship this time (behind the Moto-Guzzi factory riders Anderson and Lorenzetti). The undisputed favorite in the premier class was Gilera works driver Geoff Duke as the reigning world champion.

The 125 cc factory machine from MV Agusta in 1953 was almost equivalent to the NSU Rennfox, as Leslie Graham’s victory in the first TT race of the year proved. The next day, the Englishman had a fatal accident, which significantly weakened the Italian brand’s fighting strength. Nevertheless, italians Carlo Ubbiali (at the German GP in 1953 at the Schottenring) and Angelo Copeta also won in the rain race in Spain at the end of the season. Now everyone was curious to see who would come out on top in 1954.
Our compilation of factory teams for the 1954 season with Adler as the new candidate, although this brand only focused on the 250cc category. The Italian brand Moto-Morini, which was still quite successful in the smallest class last year, had withdrawn, like FB-Mondial the year before.
The East German Horst Fügner at the Feldberg race in 1954, where he and his motorcycle drew attention to himself and his motorcycle on his IFA (later MZ) from the GDR (built in the ruins of the former DKW factory in Zschopau). Much to the surprise of the West German pilots and factories, the fast man from Chemnitz took his first foreign victory with third place. We should hear more about him and his employer in the West soon.

Season opener in Reims with the category up to 250cc

After Rouen, it was Reims’ turn for the French Grand Prix and, unlike last year, the 125s were not advertised here this time. On the Circuit de Gueux with a length of 8,347 kilometers, the smallest category was the one up to 250cc. The fastest in training was the reigning world champion Haas with an average of 164.029 km/h with a lap time of 3:03.2 and local hero Pierre Monneret dominated in the larger two classes. The entire new NSU factory team from Neckarsulm arrived in Reims, consisting of Baltisberger, Haas, Hollaus and Müller. After the start, Haas and Müller initially dueled at the front. After the first of 18 laps, five NSUs were in the front, led by Haas ahead of Hollaus, Müller, Baltisberger and the private driver Reichert on his NSUSport-Max, who was eliminated in the 6th lap.

Old master Hermann Paul Müller (called H.P.) was once again appointed as a works driver at NSU in the autumn of his career and the Germans should not regret his commitment. As a living legend, the fast man from Bielefeld even won a Grand Prix in Reims in 1938 in an Auto Union racing car with already over 500 hp. This vehicle with a 12-cylinder engine was capable of speeds of up to 380 km/h.

The oppressive superiority of the NSU factory team

All other pilots were already lapped at this moment. The fight for victory then came to a head with Haas and Müller, who constantly alternated in the lead. In the final round H.P. Müller took the lead when, in the last few meters before the finish, world champion Haas pulled out of the slipstream and crossed the finish line half the bike’s length ahead of the Bielefeld rider. Behind them, Hollaus and Baltisberger ensured a quadruple victory for NSU. Only two laps behind, which was about 17 kilometers, did Tommy Wood follow Guzzi in fifth. The NSU factory team traveled from France to the TT straight after the race weekend. They didn’t want to leave anything to chance with the English home advantage in order to have a serious say, if not for victory, at least in the fight for the podium places. With a length of just over 60 kilometers, the route on the Isle of Man was not only considered particularly challenging, but it has always been one of the most dangerous courses in the world.

By far the most exciting race in Reims was the 250cc Grand Prix, which offered maximum excitement until the last minute thanks to the full commitment of Haas and veteran Müller.

The larger classes with many prominent absentees

Traditionally, most of the English (with the exception of the reigning world champion Duke) stayed away from the continent until the TT, which of course meant that there was no salt in the soup in the middle and largest classes. To the surprise of all competitors, the Moto-Guzzi factory team also did not arrive, which of course cost important points at the start of the season in both cases. Even NSU didn’t have all its irons in the fire. The youngest machines were already on their way to the Isle of Man to prepare for the TT, but thanks to the absence of Guzzi in the quarter liter class it was still enough for their first quadruple victory. While in the 350cc class one could still speak of a race with a certain excitement in the fight for second place, the result of the race in the premier class was simply not worthy of a world championship. There was also another aspect and you couldn’t blame the organizer for that.

Route sketch of the course from Reims, a good 140 kilometers northeast of Paris.

Embarrassingly low viewer interest

While over 400,000 spectators had made a pilgrimage to Solitude near Stuttgart two years before for the premiere of the first German Grand Prix in history, things looked dramatic in Reims. The organizers were able to welcome a total of 20,000 visitors, which was commented on with disbelief by reporters from Germany. In addition, almost all the stars were missing except for Geoff Duke and then the reigning world champion also had terrible bad luck when he had to go into the pits and give up due to technical problems. With that all tension was gone. A podium for the Frenchman Collot in the category up to 500 cm³ despite being two laps behind was unfortunately quite questionable in terms of the result. All other classified pilots had even lost at least three laps to winner Monneret, who was the first Frenchman to win a Grand Prix at his home race. Because he already came second in the 350s at the French GP in Rouen last year, he was undoubtedly world-class and fully deserved this triumph. The Belgian Goffin, who came second in the category up to 250cc, had already proven his skills before and Gilera pilot Milani was only 16.6 seconds behind winner Monneret in the 500cc race. There was no doubt about his skills. At the upcoming Tourist Trophy, however, everything was supposed to look completely different with all the world stars.

Pierre Monneret redeemed France at his home Grand Prix with his double victory in the two largest classes. It would take another 28 years until the first Frenchman won a world championship title (up to 250 cc). It was Jean-Louis Tournadre 982, followed by Christian Sarron and Olivier Jacque (all on Yamaha). In the third millennium, Johann Zarco became a two-time Moto2 champion and later also MotoGP winner in the premier class (on a Ducati), as well as Fabio Quartararo (Yamaha) as the first 500cc world champion in 2021.

The Tourist Trophy really kicked off the season – but dramatically

While many stars, especially from the larger classes, were still missing in Reims, the 1954 season was of course just getting started at the TT on the Isle of Man. Tragically, after the four fatalities last year, there were now three fatal accidents. During training, the Australian Laurie Boulter (Norton) was caught when he saw his compatriot Ken Kavanagh on the side of the track at Handley Corner, turned around shortly after him and then collided with a doctor’s car. Laurie flew over the vehicle and into a stone wall, after which any help came too late. On June 7, 1954, Raymond G. Ashford had a fatal accident on his 350 BSA during training at Laurel Bank and just 11 days later, Simon Sandys Winch (Velocette 350 cc) died from his injuries after a serious crash at Highlander on the first lap. The German NSU delegation, on the other hand, was lucky and all of their factory pilots were expected to return safely.

The infamous Tourist Trophy track Snaefell Mountain Circuit – hardly any other track in the world claimed so many tragic victims due to its dangerous nature.
AJS had re-sharpened their parallel twin and due to the strong ribbing of the cylinders and their heads, it was given the nickname “Porcupine”. In the junior category up to 350cc the effort should pay off. In the picture the new 500cc series with less extreme cooling fins.

The sensational race in the ultra-lightweight class

With Rupert Hollaus as a new NSU signing, a new star was obviously born in the Grand Prix circus. The German factory had already had a golden touch two years earlier with the signing of the then young driver Werner Haas and has now welcomed a new diamond into their team, the Austrian. In addition, the two veterans H. P. Müller and Hans Baltisberger, which was a combination that was difficult to beat in the smaller two classes from 1954 onwards. After the good third place in the category up to 250cc in Reims, Hollaus’ masterpiece followed in the 125cc at the Tourist Trophy. The young talent dueled with multiple world champion Carlo Ubbiali for 10 rounds on the smaller Clypse Course until he ultimately won by 4 seconds over the Italian (often called “the Chinese” by his compatriots due to his narrow eyes). TT expert Cecil Sandford was distanced from the two fighting cocks by over four and a half minutes and, as the winner from 1952, took third place in the same category this time. Behind him was Hans Baltisberger on another factory NSU ahead of the Englishmen Lloyd, Purslow (both MV Agusta) and Grace on Montesa from the English enclave of Gibraltar, at the southernmost tip of Spain.

The Clypse Course was used at the Tourist Trophy in the ultra-lightweight class up to 125cc. In contrast to the Snaefell Course with over 60 kilometers, its length was only 17,361 km and was therefore much easier to memorize. However, this made the task particularly difficult for the pilots who also competed in the 250s.
Start of the Ultra-Lightweight Class race in 1954, as was usual for many years, with the engine switched off first and pushed until it started. Reigning world champion Haas crashed early on at Governors Bridge and was able to restart the race, but he came again on the sixth lap and then had to retire (luckily uninjured).
Rupert Hollaus (NSU) in front of his pursuer Carlo Ubbiali (MV Agusta), who, after Cromie McCandless (FB-Mondial) in 1951 and teammate Cecil Sandford the year after, once again had an opponent snatch his first triumph in the Ultra-Lightweight Tourist Trophy from under his nose .

German triumph in the Lightweight class

In 1938, Ewald Kluge on DKW was the first German to win in the category up to 250cc. After the Second World War, however, his compatriots and manufacturers had to wait a long time before they were even allowed to take part in the world championship that was newly created in 1949. From 1952 onwards, the time had come and within a year, NSU and figurehead Werner Haas achieved a double title in the two smaller classes. The following year, their new addition Hollaus dominated in the smallest and in the even more important quarter-liter category they were supposed to come out on top and bring four riders into the top six. Moto-Guzzi, the benchmark of all things two years ago, was thus relegated to the status of an extra. Being beaten so severely must have been extremely painful for the Italians, as they had a proven specialist under contract in Reginald Armstrong. The Irishman has already been on the podium several times at the TT and had even won the senior category (up to 500cc) two years before (on Norton). However, in the end it wasn’t enough for him to get more than 5th place.

Rupert Hollaus (far left) and Werner Haas (third from left) have been the two dominant figures in the smallest two categories since they rode together for NSU back to the 1954 season. As a two-time world champion, the German was the man to beat this season anyway. And the Austrian was one of the few able to do it this year.
The NSU Rennmax 250cc, as used by Werner Haas in the world championship, can now be viewed in person in the motorcycle museum in Neckarsulm, along with many other historic racing and street bikes from older and more recent times. Of course the Rennfox 125cc is also on display there.

Germany ahead of Austria and Ireland at NSU

At a time when failures and technical problems were the most normal thing in the world, the NSU team made a very lasting impression on the motorsport world. At that time, reaching the finish with all five factory drivers in the points was more than rare. Armstrong initially took the lead before Haas replaced him at the top. After the first of 3 laps on the Snaefell Circuit and a good 60 kilometers, the German was six seconds ahead of the Irishman on the fastest Moto-Guzi, followed by Hollaus, Müller and Baltisberger (all NSU). Ken Kavanagh, the second candidate for a good placing for the Italian Guzzis, had to retire with a damaged machine after a collision with old master H. P. Müller. Anderson lost the rear fairing, clearing the way for the impressively reliable NSU factory team. After two of three laps, Haas was 33 seconds ahead of Armstrong, with Hollaus close behind, followed by Müller, Anderson and Baltisberger. The recently modified and further improved Rennmax from NSU amazed the competition and in the end only Guzzi Ass Anderson managed to break the perfect record for the brand from Neckarsulm with P5 and was waved off at the finish ahead of Hans Baltisberger. But the jubilation in the NSU camp was of course indescribable and they had made history.

A shot at Signpost Corner – with spectators sitting unprotected directly on the stretch. A short time later, this would have fatal consequences in automobile racing. As a result, Switzerland then banned circuit racing in its country and that was the death knell for the Bern Grand Prix.

AJS and the return to success

The English brand had not had any successes at the TT for a very long time, but the opportunity for this was definitely there, especially in the 350cc class, and they took advantage of it in 1954. Because the Italian factories of Gilera and MV at the time focused primarily on the premier class up to 500cc, Norton and Moto-Guzzi remained the most serious competitors. That’s why the people from Wolverhampton stepped up and significantly sharpened their world-famous “7R Boy Racer” model. After many years of failure, Rod Coleman finally managed to get back to the pre-war times, when victory was often the only way to win. With Bob Kessler (P3) and Peter Davey in fifth, only two Norton drivers managed to break into the AJS Phalanx. Because Dickie Dale and Bill Lomas literally disappeared on their MVs, only the former managed to place seventh (but with no points). Since 1922, a full 32 years, the London company AJS had to wait for its next victory in the junior category of the Tourist Trophy.

Bill Lomas on the 4-cylinder MV Agusta in the jump – the Englishman missed the points at the TT 1954 and he would not be able to do this in the remaining rounds of the World Championship either. His compatriot and brand colleague Dickie Dale, on the other hand, had a breakthrough at the end of the season.

The premier class demolition race

When the fog set in, it became too dangerous in the 500s, which is why the race had to be stopped early after 4 laps instead of 7. Four pilots crashed on the first lap at Quarter Bridge. Geoff Duke, who was initially in the lead, fell back after being in the lead for a while because he obviously decided that he would rather leave the island alive. Unsurprisingly, the race management decided far too late to stop the race, which cost the reigning defending champion their victory. But the best driver of his time was still able to save second place behind Norton’s figurehead Amm. Behind Duke, Jack Brett (Norton) was already well behind at the demolition, ahead of Armstrong (Gilera) and the two Nortons of Allison and Laing. Actually, it was just pure luck that there were no more fatalities in this race than the three pilots initially mentioned who lost their lives in this edition of the TT.

Our summary of the results with British dominance in the two larger classes, as is often seen at the TT. This time the two fastest of the smaller classes spoke German.
Ray Amm at the start with his adventurous Norton – the Rhodesian (today’s Zimbabwe) risked the most in the approaching fog before the long overdue demolition and was rewarded with victory. Unfortunately, it was to be his last participation in the TT, as we will see in 1955.

Before continuing in Ulster

The teams didn’t have to travel particularly far this year before the next Grand Prix. The ferry from Douglas on the Isle of Man to Belfast in Northern Ireland only needs to cover a little over 100 miles in just under 4 hours. The situation in the World Championship was still completely open after 2 of 9 rounds (only 6 races were advertised for the 125cc and only 7 races up to 250cc) except for the quarter liter class. In the premier class, there should also be unexpected problems in Northern Ireland after the early cancellation of the TT. With Werner Haas, there was only one pilot who led the intermediate rankings with a clear lead before the onward journey. With 16 points after 2 of 7 rounds, the reigning world champion led ahead of Rupert Hollaus (10), Hermann Paul Müller (9), Armstrong and Baltisberger (both 4), all on NSU.

Geoffrey “Geoff” Duke from England – the absolute superstar of the first years of Grand Prix motorcycle racing. Because he had had more and more trouble on his Norton against the 4-cylinder machines from Italy over the course of the 1952 season, he switched to Gilera for the following year and regained his title in the premier class, which he had lost due to an injury, on this model. After his unsuccessful start to the season in France, he got back on the road to success with second place at the TT.

Unless otherwise stated, this applies to all images (© MotoGP).