The Classic Motorcycle Rally

Fast… but not Furious. - Len Cohen
by Jock Leyden.

The great Italian master, Leonardo da Vinci, painted a famous picture—a portrait of a woman with an enigmatic, inscrutable smile. This renowned picture is called "The Mona Lisa" and the smile is known as "The Gioconda Smile". Leonard Ronald Cohen was no painter, but as a rider of racing motor-cycles he was a past master, and, if I remember him for one thing, apart from his amazing record, it is his smile. Leonardo's Gioconda smile and Leonard Cohen's smile had much in common! Whether he had just received a winner's laurels, or was still reeling from one of the sickening blows dealt so often by a capricious Fate, bringing defeat when victory was already within his grasp, he wore a smile. And the Len Cohen smile was as enigmatic and inscrutable as that which played on the countenance of the Mona Lisa.

Yes, Leonard Ronald Cohen was one of the greatest speedmen South Africa produced. If you have never heard of him, mores the pity, so gather round and listen, for here is a story to tell of the little man who, in his own words, "served a four-year apprenticeship in the racing game". Four years in which he never won a single event! But let's go even further back than that. Len was born in Johannesburg, where his first ride was on a friend's 2½ hp Humber. He was then 14 years old. No licences were required in those days, which made it easier. Then, for £15 he bought a Rex but didn't keep this very long for it was too big for him. When push-starting, people on the near side though they were seeing a motor-cycle going by itself! His main recollection of that machine, which gave him much trouble and little real joy, is of an exhaust pipe that shone red-hot.

When, two years later, he was in Durban and apprenticed to Shimwell Brothers, he acquired a Rudge, reputed to have been the property of Ralph Suzor, then one of the big noises in local racing circles. The name inscribed on the tank was not Rudge, however. Instead, emblazoned along its length was the slogan, "Some go fast". That was a statement about which the young owner never had any doubt. He was sure, too, of one more thing —it did not include the specimen in question. With Tommy Kenyon, another Shimwell Bros, employee, Len competed in lots of competitions. Tommy was quite a performer in club events, and usually did very well on his Triumph in speed tests. (In those days 60 mph was good going for a 550 cc side-valve belt-drive machine.)

A report of a speed trial in 1919 showed Tommy's Rudge as having attained this speed. The event was won by A J Ford at 72,158 mph on a big Harley-Davidson. In 1921 the parent firm sent down from Johannesburg an 8 hp big twin Enfield outfit which, despite its reputation as a "Jonah", Len entered in the 300 mile Durban-Ladysmith-Durban "Trial"—as that race was first called. He tacked a sidecar on to the big two-speeder, and with Alex Kempner in the chair, set off on a practice run. The back axle broke. Undaunted, they tried again the following week-end. A cam-wheel broke. Days later it went on fire in the workshop and Len had a frantic and somewhat frenzied rush to get it outside lest it set the whole place alight. That manoeuvre successfully accomplished, he extinguished the flames by riding up Pine Street at high speed! That was the only time it could have been called "hot stuff" but Len and ballast, Alec, set off on race day full of hopes and spare bits and pieces.

Near Ladysmith a fork shackle bolt broke and Len used his spare front axle to do a temporary repair. You had to be ingenious in those days! Some miles later the sidecar spring collapsed, and Kempner, who was already having a murderous ride, wanted to give up. At Pinetown, on the return trip, the other spring folded up, too, and when the race was finished, poor Kempner went home to bed - and didn't get up for a week! Official records credit the Enfield with a fourth place in the sidecar class behind Smith, Blackburn and Harper.

If that race nearly killed the crew, it didn't have that effect on the pilot, for a couple of months later he had entered a Triumph in the Durban-Johannesburg race. Starting No 39, Len was No 2 into Newcastle, where he was told, "If you win, there's a fortune in it for you from a bookie." It appears there had been some heavy betting on the race. Len didn't say anything, for he didn't want it to be known that he had been virtually without a back-brake from Colenso. There, in a battle with Wilson, the Cape ace on an Indian, he had hit a particularly shocking bump on the pot-holed road which flung him right off his mount, hands, feet and all. Miraculously he fell back on it - not off it. But the brake shoe had broken and fractured the rear fork slay. Thereafter, every time he applied the brake the rear wheel went out of line!

Len battled on next day, and reckons he was lucky to finish in third place behind Bobbie Blackburn's Harley-Davidson and Hildebrand's Johannesburg-built Hilda.

That same year he finished second to Charlie Young in the 2nd SA TT run on the Maritzburg - Thornville Junction triangular course. The road, if one could call it that, was so bad that Len wonders to this day how they ever rode on it. In the race his back stand caught in a rock and he crashed, but still finished second, some 31 minutes behind Charlie Young on another Triumph, in the intermediate (up to 750 cc) class. Despite tyre trouble and delays from a fractured petrol pipe, he did well to finish fifth in the 1922 DJ. Young, Scott, Long and Dessells finished ahead of him.

On the Triumph he was one place further back – sixth - in the 1923 Coast-to-Rand classic.

But he had had his eyes on another machine for some time. This was the "big-port" AJS on which dapper little speedster Ralph Suzor had crashed during a grass track race on Clairwood racecourse. In a hair-raising collision with another rider, the AJS had flown so high that Charlie Young, who was riding close behind actually rode underneath as it cavorted through the air like an exploding jumping-jack fire-cracker!

Whether this spill dampened Ralph's enthusiasm for a time we'll never know. But Len kept asking if he could buy it, and one day a deal was done. £60 was the price asked, and paid, and, from then on, the entry lists showed "L R Cohen (AJS)" instead of "L R Cohen (Triumph)". He had always ridden as a private entrant, without any trade support whatsoever, so felt he was letting nobody down by racing the AJS. Others did not take the same view, especially when he won the coveted Shimwell Trophy riding a machine sold by a rival agency! The result was that he left and opened up a little shop of his own in West Street, opposite the cemetery.

The Scotts in Johannesburg asked him to ride a 350 Chater-Lea in the 1924 Rand race. The low-slung Blackburne-engined job went well till a rock holed the crankcase. But successes came thick and fast on the AJS and he joined S & W Killerby, the local agents for AJS and BSA machines. For three years, the rakish AJS cleaned up nearly every event in which it was entered. Besides umpteen formula hill-climbs, it won the 350, 500 and unlimited grass track championships, and the Natal Blue Riband (a 20-mile grass track championship on Clairwood racecourse).

The AJS gave Len his first big win - the 1923 Natal “100". He clocked a - for then - phenomenal time of 2 hr 9 min for the return trip; a time which was to stand till he knocked it for a loop three years later, doing 1 hr 55 min, the first rider to break two hours for the journey. This, in turn, stood for four years, when, in that memorable tussle against Charlie Young, he reduced it to 1 hr 30 min 45 sec. But I am getting a bit ahead with my story . . .
Later that year he journeyed up to the Free State for "The Bloemfontein Blue Riband".

From the start it looked as if the dashing little Joe Sarkis, the 1925 winner, would have it all his own way, for Len lost 2½ minutes changing a plug and Joe streaked away to an early lead. But gradually the AJS snatched back the precious seconds and went into the last lap of the 127-mile race 50 seconds behind. There was great excitement at the finish when the black speck that was the leader hove into sight with a big yellow dust trail billowing out behind. Who was it? Joe? No - it was Len, and he took the chequered flag to win by 30 seconds.

That little black and gold machine was a real flyer in its day. Because it was so fast, Len changed his entry from a 350 ohv to a side-valve job for the 1925 DJ race. It came about this way. Near Mooi River, on a pre-race road survey, Len fell into a hole which was so vast that it swallowed the machine. Convinced that this was no road for an ohv, he swopped his entry to a side-valve job. He thought he had done the wise thing, too - for he'd never seen the road so bad. Judge his surprise then, and disgust, when he found on race day that a road party had been busy on this section and filled in all the worst holes! He finished twelfth.

The road menders must have filled in quite a few of the big holes before the 1926 event, for Len, on a 350 ohv, shattered all records, reaching Weston in two hours and clocked into Newcastle in 10th position, after starting 44th from Mayville. In the lead at this stage was Jack Gibson (300 s/v OK), followed by Stuart (Francis Barnett), then the Long brothers, R and A. But the wiseacres pointed to No 44 as the likely winner, for he had broken Big Bill du Toit's "unlimited" record for the first stage by over a minute. The old Cohen smile must have felt a bit forced all through the Sunday day of rest before starting on the Monday, because he knew that all was not well with his motor, whose big end had started to rattle in ominous fashion even before Ladysmith. Len knew his only chance was to ride "carefully" and hope that the big end would last to City Deep.

At Standerton, with 100 miles to go, Gibson was still keeping his distance in front of the Long brothers, but the AJS had gained 4 minutes. On the easy flat-out stretches, R S Long (side-valve Sunbeam) began to overhaul the OK, at the same time pulling away from Alf's s/v Indian. Behind them battled the AJS, getting rougher and rougher in the engine department every minute. Len felt like a murderer as the motor struggled. Could it last the distance? At Breyten, with 50 miles to go, he'd hauled back another two minutes and all three were closing in on the little OK. Could it stick it? Len heard the death rattle grow in intensity as the motor knocked itself to pieces, and at Heidelberg it turned over for the last time and died. So ended a very gallant effort with Gibson going on to win in a tight finish, only 2½ minutes ahead of R S Long. Alf Long was third, arriving 6½ minutes later.

At Kragga Kamma, where he had competed without success in 1924 and 1926, he led the 1927 SA Junior TT from start to finish, fighting off spirited challenges from Charlie Young (Enfield) and, when he retired, Baby Scott (Chater-Lea). Doug Scott (Rex Acme) and Don Hall (BSA) then took up the chase, but the leader was not to be denied this time and, riding brilliantly, won as he pleased, D Scott and Hall being second and third.

Coming to the line on his 350 cc for the Senior race, there was a real ding-dong struggle between the AJS and Percy Flook (Norton). Len broke "Baby" Scott's 350 lap record put up the previous day by 25 sec and, at 100 miles, was a mere 11 seconds in arrears. The "faster" signal came from Wolf Killerby in the Natalian's pit, for the Norton's back wheel was visibly wobbly. Len responded gamely, with the prospect of a double victory coming up, but, with the Norton just ahead, the AJS clutch started slipping. Braking to a standstill, Len collected a handful of twigs from the veld, dropped them between the plates and set off in pursuit. But this stop had dropped him well behind, and he considered himself lucky to keep ahead of Charlie Young to the finish, Flook, buckled wheel and all, getting the flag nearly 8 minutes before him. He was happy at least in having retained the Junior TT Woolavington Trophy for Natal, for each year the Rand riders cast covetous eyes on that magnificent sample of the silversmith's art.

These great rides earned him a trip to the Isle of Man that year, where he collected a silver replica for his eighth place in the Junior race, though he had to retire in the Senior. Back, armed with a very potent pair of motors, his Kragga Kamma visit in the New Year of 1928 started with another Junior victory. This time, as well as all the best riders in the Union to contend with, there was Jimmy Simpson, the famous British star mounted on a fiery piece of Wolverhampton racewear. Jimmy was known as a flier, having led nearly every race he ever rode in till he won, or the motor packed up. If Jimmy had raced in these modern days when metallurgical research has given the know-how necessary to high speed engine reliability, no one would have won a race from him for ten years. Pre-race rumours had it that Jimmy wasn't too enamoured with riding on the P.E. circuit with its pot-holes, sand and corrugations, and was intent only on dealing the lap record a wallop and then calling it a day.

That's how it seemed to be when the field set off in the initial wild rush up the flat-out 6 mile blind along the Cape road. At Greenbushes, Len had his nose in front and made the run down to Cow Corner, with Simpson tucked in close astern.

Deciding South Africa's honour was at stake, Len negotiated the tricky back stretch to Frame's Drift as he'd never done it before, and went through the Deviation 23 seconds ahead of Simpson. Both had smashed the 1927 record lap from a standing start. Lap two saw Cohen on his own, for Simpson retired with a buckled rear wheel, and a new TT star named Joe Sarkis, three times winner of the Bloemfontein Blue Riband, took up the chase on a Velocette, though delayed by a leaking petrol tank and an engine vibrating after a bolt had slackened and fallen off. Out on his own, Len won by nearly 15 minutes, with new lap and race records. Doug Scott was third on a Chater-Lea, finishing over an hour after the winner, two whole laps behind.

Simpson repeated his tactics in the Senior race and was going like a bomb, half a mile ahead of the field, when he crashed on the sandy "ball bearings" road surface at Frame's Drift, a mile from the end of the first lap. Big Bill du Toit on another cammy AJ then put on a display of hectic riding, the likes of which hadn't been seen before - and maybe since! Four times he crashed in his wild attempts to overhaul Len, who had settled down at the head of the field. Then, on lap 7, Du Toit's back wheel collapsed from the hammering it had taken on the pot-holed road, and the crowds at Hunter's Retreat Hotel had the terrifying thrill of watching Bill fighting the resulting 200 yard lock-to-lock wobble!

Now the crowds settled down to await Len's final lap. Roaring through the Deviation, a bolt dropped off his machine and a little boy retrieved it and handed it to a pit attendant. Len sped on. The black and white flag came out, but Len did not arrive on schedule. There was a stir in the pits as the minutes ticked by with no sign of his arrival. Something had happened. But what? Then came the laconic announcement, "Cohen has retired. Broken back wheel.” The full story, when it was told, was more dramatic. Going through the Willows, his back stand fell down (that bolt!), fouled the back wheel, locked it up solid, and the AJ started a wild, bucking-bronco career across the road, ending up, fortunately for its rider, in a slide on the loose shale, instead of plunging into the trees where it was headed. Miraculously unhurt, Len examined his battered mount. Back wheel ripped to glory - chain broken - tyre burst. He tried to push it home, for he was miles ahead of Scott, Loader and Gardner. But, despite all his frantic efforts, he couldn't budge it, and had to give up the struggle. That was real tragedy. So near - and yet!

Loader (BSA) was now second, but he spent 15 minutes in the pits before setting out on his last lap. Baby Scott (Chater-Lea) was also in with clutch trouble, and one wondered if there would be any finishers! Then Scott got going and Loader followed, as Cohen arrived on foot to get a great ovation from the crowd at the pits, for his had been cruel luck. The Cohen smile was still in evidence, however, and everybody settled back to see who would win now.

A roar came when it was announced from Frame's Drift that Scott was leading there, with Loader on his tail. Eagerly necks were strained to see the leader enter the Deviation. Who would it be? It was Scott! But "Baby" overdid his final corner and skidded wide. Bunny nipped inside to win by one second. The closest SA TT finish ever! It was an exciting climax, even if the time taken was 23 min. slower than Len's Junior race speed.

Once more from the TT at Port Elizabeth, Len set sail for the TT in the Isle of Man, but, for fun, agreed before going over to make up an AJS factory team riding in the Scottish Six Days' Trial. Len was no trials rider, though, if you look, you'll see his name as a member of the team which won the Dewar Shield Trial in 1921. In Britain this is a different business and a highly specialised art, but George Rowley, one of England's greatest trials exponents, had a bike made ready and off they went.

Team-mates Rowley and Leo Davenport were as at home on trials as on road race machines, and Len found the Six Days great fun, though the going was strange. Used as he was to rough roads, it was a new experience to climb up mist-shrouded boulder-strewn gullies in Highland downpours. But, if his style was perhaps unorthodox and his strong-arm methods a bit breath-taking to watch, particularly on Brayhive, where he explored both banks, in a bold and successful attempt to do a "clean" climb, he rated his first Scottish trip a great experience, and his medal one of his most prized possessions. (His must be the only one won by a South African, and he the only Springbok ever to have taken part in Britain's premier long distance trial.)

From there, he sailed across the Irish Sea to Mona's Isle. Luck deserted him this time. The factory had reverted to push-rod jobs and had more than their share of troubles. Len retired in the Junior with a sick motor. The Senior race was one of the wettest ever. Visibility was almost nil on the mountain, and riding conditions truly atrocious. One by one the leaders went. There was a tragic multiple pile-up on lap one which took Jimmy Simpson out, among others. Len battled on, giving way to the locals who wanted to pass on the mountain murk, and then tacked on to their tails. One he followed suddenly became two, as rider and machine parted, ending up on opposite sides of the road. He must have had mixed feelings when that miserable ride ended with another engine failure. It is interesting to note that he was at that time leading George Rowley, who finished second to the diminutive Charlie Dodson on a Sunbeam. Rowley's was the only AJS team machine to finish. This was Dodson's lucky day, for Graham Walker had been in the lead 8 miles from home when a push-rod broke. Tommy Spann (AJS) took over and he, too, went out, letting pint-sized Charlie's Sunbeam through to victory.

Len's 1929 season started off disastrously at Port Elizabeth, for he ran out of petrol when lying second to Don Hall, the eventual winner on a swift Velocette, and he did not start in the Senior race. Then, for the DJ in May, he appeared on a standard model which had been taken out of the display window and stripped of its lights. He must have done some "heavy breathing" on that 350, however, for he made fastest time of the 127 starters to Newcastle, where he was in seventh position. Once more Len was the popular fancy to win for ahead of him were only Tommy Owen on the 250 two-stroke Levis and Uys on a 350 cam AJ who looked likely challengers. But it was not to be - and Cohen knew it, for when he handed his machine in to the overnight control he had spotted a broken valve spring. It was only a matter of time before his wretched "Jo’burg race luck" caught up with him again. This time it called a halt at Platrand, and Jimmy Lind, the one-eyed Rand speedway racer, who had clocked into Newcastle 7 minutes behind him, went on to win in a new record time of 8 hr 8 min 9 sec. What Len would have done if that valve spring had stood up is anyone's guess? But racing is full of "ifs".

For 1930 Don Hall repeated his Junior TT success and Len had to be content with second place in this, as well as in the Senior, when Sarkis' flying Rudge beat him to the line. He followed this up with his shortest Jo'burg race run, going out at Harrison Flats with mechanical failures, but he ended the season with a great split-second win over Charlie Young in that never-to-be-forgotten Natal "100”. The cunning Charlie stalked him all the way to the finish and fell off on the last bend when his oil-soaked brakes failed, leaving the AJS to snatch a breath-taking win and set up a new record time of 1 hr 30 min 45 sec for the race.

There was excitement galore in the 1931 Junior TT on January 1st. Don Hall went out on lap one when the shock absorber of his Velo came adrift. Len went into the lead and Jimmy Lind took up the chase. But try as Lind did, he kept losing ground, being over 3 minutes behind on lap 7 (140 miles). On the last lap everybody wondered if the Cohen luck was going to take another knock. This time the blow was reserved for Lind, who packed up with a broken frame two miles from the finish. The Woolavington Trophy was safe for Natal again. The next three to finish, Schegar (AJS), Muller (Velo) and Wilmot (Cotton), were all East Londoners. Lind had his compensation when he took the Senior race next day after trailing Sarkis for seven laps. Len's race ended there, too, a petrol pipe fractured when he was lying fifth. Lind won from Hall and Bertenshaw, both on 350's.

Though delayed with jet troubles, Len on a 350 cam AJS, finished in 11th place in the 1932 DJ, two minutes outside Lind's record time. The smaller machines had been treated more kindly by the handicapper, and Taylor, on a 225 cc two-stroke Royal Enfield, won from Hughes on a nifty 250 cam AJS said to have been Jimmy Guthrie's Isle of Man Lightweight TT winning mount. He gave the SA TT a bye the following year, and switched to a BSA for the DJ, but although he made fastest time to Maritzburg, went out later on when plagued by tyre troubles.

The 1933 race, by contrast, gave him one of those rides he'll never forget, for it developed into a duel between himself and his apprentice, young Burton Kinsey, to whom he conceded six minutes start. "The Foreman" must have taught his apprentice well, for though he rode all he knew, he just couldn't pick up "the boy", who still had a couple of minutes in hand at City Deep. That was a great day for Killerbys! Wolf, Sam, Jimmy, Arthur, Alf and John!

In the "hailstorm" Jo'burg race, which Don Hall won on a Norton, Len was again BSA mounted, but his exposed mag was drowned in mud and water and went down for the third time in old Karkloof's muddy depths. For a change, he was on the scratch mark on a Norton in 1935 along with Sarkis (Sunbeam) and "Baby" Scott's Triumph, and had left that pair astern when the supporting bolt on his gearbox broke. He was sidelined once more, and young Roy Hesketh (Excelsior) took the 1935 DJ laurels, chased by Noel Horsfield's New Imperial.

In the last of the inter-town classics he had no luck either, retiring above Maritzburg. That was his last real fling, but there were no complaints. He'd had a good long innings and had left a record that stood with the best. Indeed he must be classed as one of South Africa's "immortals" in the motor-cycle racing field. Wherever racing men gather and talk as they do, the name of Len Cohen will crop up regularly and his performances will be discussed. Len was one of the steadiest of riders and looked the most comfortable. Brought up in the crouched, as opposed to the prone position used today, he could be truly said to look as if he was part of his machine. And no matter what road surface he was on, sand (yes, I forgot to say he also rode at Pendine Sands in Britain when he was over there in 1928), tarmac, grass, rough roads or smooth, his back wheel always looked glued to the road.

Yes, Len was a great rider, make no mistake. He still works among the motorbikes in Maritzburg.

“? Len is the only South African rider who has competed in the famous Scottish Six Days Trial ? ”
Ask Len what gave him his greatest thrill - he'll tell you at once - the night he won the NMCC snooker championship in the old club rooms (where the Colonial Mutual Building now stands in West Street). Len beat old Issy Nyberg in the final. Issy was mad. Len was so happy for once he didn't wear his Mona Lisa smile. He just burst out laughing. And he laughs every time he thinks of it, even now.

Copyright J. Leyden 1964

Len Cohen – Then and Now