Engineer was legend in motor sport

Engineer was legend in motor sport

7 April 2021

JAMES Nathaniel Brown served his apprenticeship at Stewart’s Motor Works in Downpatrick before the Second World War, later moving to work for the former Ulster Transport Authority.

In late 1945 he opened his Antrim Road garage in Ballynahinch with a loan from a family friend and what a sound investment it proved to be, spawning a long and distinguished family connection with motorcycle sport of various types. 

Not long after his business opened, James Nathaniel Brown — or JN as he was affectionately known — developed a business and social relationship with the Herron family from Leitrim, outside Castlewellan.

And the sports connection evolved from here when Jimmy and Wilfred Herron began to take an interest in competition in the form of grass track racing, with JN putting his considerable engineering skills to good use in preparing the machinery for the brothers.

However, the grass tracking phase was fairly short lived, with the Herron boys turning their attention to road racing and Jimmy consistently obtaining good results, But he was somewhat outshone by Wilfred who in his first season in 1954 developed at a spectacular pace, going from novice to a force to be reckoned with. 

The swiftness of his rise through the ranks is illustrated by the result from the 1955 North West 200 road race when, riding a 350cc Gold Star BSA, he finished third behind very distinguished international company in the shape of Jackie Wood and Bob Brown, the Australian who later rode works Matchless, Gilera and Honda machinery.

Later that same year a Norton Featherbed was acquired just after the TT and, some six weeks later, Wilfie was in a stunning fifth place in the World Championship Ulster Grand Prix when a split petrol tank forced race officials to black flag him with several laps to go.

Wilfie subsequently finished that season tied on points with Louis Carter for the Walter Rusk trophy which was in effect the Irish road-race championship, with Jimmy backing this effort up by finishing fourth in the championship which covered all classes.

In 1956, Wilfie confirmed this form was no fluke by winning the Irish Championship, including a fifth place finish at the Ulster Grand Prix to score two world championship points. He then repeated the feat in 1957, scoring consistently all over Ireland.

At this stage, Jimmy was always a top contender in the 250cc class and along with brother Wilfie the duo were a force to be reckoned with. 

The speed and reliability of the brothers’ machinery during this spell was clear proof of JN Brown’s meticulous approach to preparation and outstanding ability in the tuning stakes, establishing a reputation which 

was to be enhanced over the following years.

From 1958 on, business pressures enforced a break from competition for the Herron brothers but JN’s enthusiasm was undiminished and he turned his attention to the grass track and motocross scene and it was  during this phase that he became more and more involved with engine development, compared to just preparation. 

JN began this era with a youngster by the name of Mervyn McConkey who would progress to legendary status in grass track and scrambling history, becoming Irish champion in every capacity class available. A feat that no one has ever matched.

The machine chosen for this venture was the Triumph Tiger Cub, the 200cc class being very popular in Ireland for all types of racing and where the legendary Joey Dunlop started his illustrious career.

McConkey showed great potential right from the word go and within weeks of his first race was starting to win on a regular basis. Indeed, before long he was a top contender in the 200cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc classes and there were occasions when he won every race he entered at a given meeting, with a season’s tally of wins almost topping the 100 mark.

All this was of course greatly helped by JN Brown’s engine tuning and modification programme, with the development aspect of his activities accelerated with the acquisition of a 250cc BSA C-15.

Indeed, so successful was the Brown/McConkey alliance that results came to the notice of the BSA factory in the shape of the company’s competitions department manager Brian Martin, with whom JN established a successful and long-lived development partnership. 

The factory C-15s were being successfully campaigned by future world champion Jeff Smith and Saturday afternoon scrambles were regularly televised on BBC’s Grandstand programme. 

JN would send to the factory details of modifications which had proved successful in Ireland and, of course, if something was tried and failed in Ireland then the factory avoided any adverse publicity. Over the followings number of seasons BSA quietly supplied free machinery each season for use as a development test bed.

In addition, JN also began a series of specials by increasing engine capacities, using the time honoured ‘bitza’ method of adapting separate parts of other engines to alter bore and stroke measurements and so achieve the desired capacity. 

Examples of this process were 340cc and 412cc specials, both of which were successfully campaigned by McConkey and his son Junior Brown. 

The BSA factory was kept informed and developed the works machinery along similar lines in terms of cylinder capacities used. The high point of factory development came with Jeff Smith becoming World Champion in 1964 and again in 1965, with both championships achieved using 440cc engines which confirm the significant input from the Ballynahinch engineer.

The next chapter in JN’s story emanated in a roundabout way from the USA. 

Triumph had long had a large part of their export sales in America whose major race was the prestigious Daytona 200 which had become something of a Harley Davidson benefit, with the manufacturer taking 10 successive wins from 1956 onwards. 



This success was largely attributable to Harley’s capacity advantage in running 750cc machines, whereas the overhead valve equipped opposition were restricted to a 500cc limit. 

Triumph dealers in America began pressing the factory for some more race development on the T100 model being used at Daytona, but this request received a cool reception from MD Edward Turner. 

Luckily enough, Triumph’s head of development, the brilliant Doug Hele, took up the gauntlet and with his dedicated team and working largely in their own time, undertook the race development work.

They eventually reached the stage where they scooped the 1966 and 1967 Daytona events with riders Gary Nixon and Buddy Elmore and the production T100 was re-christened the Daytona model. Further work enabled Percy Tait to record podium places in the World Championship Grand Prix series.

Back in Ballynahinch, JN began to see this as a challenge and reckoned he could do as well as the factory, or maybe even better.

His son, John, bought a second-hand T100 for his father to work his magic on and, to house the engine, a frame and cycle parts from a 1957 World Championship winning 250cc Mondial were bought from George Purvis. It subsequently transpired that George had actually rebuilt the frame. After considerable development work had been carried out performance figures were indeed impressive with the motor producing approximately 52 BHP at 9,500 RPM, comparing very favourably with the fully race designed and developed Manx Norton and Matchless G50 engines favoured by the majority of top riders of that era. 

Consider also that the published factory figures for the 1968 T100 production bike was 41 BHP at 7,200 RPM, with top speed quoted as 105 MPH – the Brown racer, pulling a tall gearing, could hit 150mph.

JN’s work paid off in quite spectacular fashion at the 1969 Tandragee 100 where Mervyn McConkey finished second to the late great Brian Steenson on a G50 Seely and ahead of that season’s 500cc Irish road race champion on a Manx Norton — not a bad result for a grass/ scrambles specialist using a production based engine.

Some year later, I spoke to road racer Ian McGregor. Ian was small in stature, but huge in his racing achievements and said he loved riding that bike as it was small enough to be comfortable for his size, handled well and was very quick.

For the following three or four seasons, the Triumph was ridden, with varying degrees of success, by a number of top road racers including Wilfie Herron, Tom Herron (which included a second place at the Cookstown 100 being one memorable result and Campbell Gorman, as well as the original jockey, McConkey. 

Whilst the machine was undoubtedly very quick and handled well, it proved to be a bit fragile. Hardly surprising, considering the very advanced state of tune applied to what was still basically a production roadster.

In 1970 Wilfie bought a Norton Commando for competition in the recently introduced 750cc class. He approached JN with a view to having the Brown magic applied to the preparation of the machine and this was 

duly carried out, once again to startling effect. 

The combination which had proved so successful nearly 20 years before resumed in full swing. For the following couple of seasons Wilfie was once again the man to beat in his chosen class with a record of something like 14 wins from 16 races over this outstandingly successful period.

Through the late 1960s, the development of two-stroke machinery drove on and expanded into the higher capacity classes so successfully that it became a near impossibility to campaign a four-stroke with any hope of consistent success. 

Having been a dedicated four-stroke fan for so many years, the two-stroke dominance was almost an anathema to JN and, after a brief spell working with a Bultaco Pursang, he drifted from active participation in the motorcycling scene, but did continue with some consultancy work with Cosworth regarding F1 car engines.

In the late seventies and eighties JN and my brother, John, sponsored my rallycross/sprint/hillclimb Mini. With development help from JN, I was fortunate to quickly become a front runner. JN always said that 90% of winning is done in the workshop before the race meetings on the Saturday.

In later years JN became great friends with Keith Duckworth, the English mechanical engineer famous for designing the Cosworth double four valve per cylinder engine and cylinder head. Jim was also great friends with Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head, who was technical director of the Williams F1 team.

JN was also great friends with the Rev Harold Good who later became  Moderator of the Methodist Church in Ireland, with the Brown family running motorsport events at Martin’s Quarry and McCormack’s Quarry in the eighties in Ballynahinch in aid of the local Methodist church building fund.

Sadly, for the last two or three years of his life JN had dementia and found things difficult given the active life he had lived.

His funeral in 1993 was one of the largest ever seen at Lough Inch Cemetery in Ballynahinch and was attended by motorcyclists from far and near. Also in attendance and Formula 1 greats like Sir Frank Williams, Sir Patrick Head and Keith Duckworth.

I will always remember JN as a great innovative pioneering engineer who was fired by his own initiative. The likes we will never see again.

Meanwhile, the Brian Steenson Memorial Group is planning to have a chat show and talk about the life and work of JN Brown later this year when lockdown restrictions ease and the group. The group will also have a new memorial cup this year dedicated to JN which has been donated by his son Junior.

The Brian Steenson group would like to wish founder member Trevor Lindsay best wishes as he recovers from illness, with their thoughts also with his wife Margaret and family at this time.