Roger Collins looks at least a decade younger than his 74 years.
Maybe it’s just good genes – his 97-year-old mother still lives in the house in which Roger was born on the banks of the Grand Union Canal – or maybe it’s something else.
“The bike keeps me young,” he says, standing next to a Suzuki GSXR 1100 Slingshot that looks nothing like it did when it left the factory.
Since buying the bike new in 1990, it has gradually morphed into a streetfighter special, the engine almost the only constant over nearly 30 years of tinkering, tweaking and, let’s be honest, total rebuilding.
Roger, a former automotive cooling engineer, dare not add up how much he’s spent on his “labour of love”, a bike that will one day pass to his son, Gary, who has jokingly told his dad: “If you ever sell that I will never speak to you again.”
First bike aged seven
Since buying his first bike at the age of seven (yes, really), Roger has bought and sold many bikes – he also owns a Kawasaki Z1000SX, a Harris Magnum 2 and a classic Triumph Speed Twin – but the Suzuki is one he will never sell.
“It represents just about everything I like about bikes,” he says at the private marina and campsite he runs a stone’s throw from his birthplace in Nether Heyford, near Northampton.
“I’ll never sell it. It represents everything I’ve learned about building a bike – using your technical know-how to do something like this makes you quite proud.
“All the tech stuff you have to find out about – getting the geometries right is mind-bending at the time, but the most fun. You think ‘how am I going to do this?’ but you read up and get there in the end.”
Among other changes, the GSXR has a Martek frame and tank, Devil exhaust system, Nitron shocks, Dymag wheels, a polished and ported head, ignition advancer, a seat from a Honda Fireblade, and front forks from a later, 2003, GSXR K3.
“It changed almost every year,” says Roger, who has painstakingly built the bike up to its current specification with the help of former Cosworth machine shop engineer Phil Spencer.
“It helps having a friend who’s a good engineer. He did all the machining work on the bike. I didn’t make anything to pattern, and he said just make a rough drawing but make sure the dimensions are right.”
Growing up, Roger would help out on his father’s dairy farm, earning money cleaning out the cow sheds at weekends.
“When we were little, he gave us a calf each, we reared them ourselves and the money went into a bank account when they were sold,” he says.
Royal Enfield for £7
It was the money from that bank account that enabled Roger to buy his first bike, a 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet, at the age of just seven.
“I paid for it out of my savings,” he says. “Dad took me to this place at Long Buckby. They had this bike for sale and I paid £7 for it.
“He also had a Brough Superior for sale, but he wanted £11 for it. If I knew then what I know now I would have snapped it up!”
A basketcase 1930 Brough Superior was sold for a cool £425,000 at auction in March this year.
Roger learned to ride the Enfield, and work on it, on the farm throughout his school years, leaving Duston Secondary Modern at the age of 15 to start work as a labourer on his father’s farm.
With his earnings he bought a brand new Triumph Tiger Cub, delivered two days before his 16th birthday, passing his bike test at the second attempt despite stalling in front of the examiner.
“I was about to do my emergency stop when I stalled at this crossroads,” he remembers. “I saw him watching me and thought ‘that’s it, I’ve failed’. He jumped out, I did my emergency stop and he said ‘I’m pleased to say you’ve passed. I didn’t fail you because you were in control of the motorcycle’.”
After two years on the farm, Roger enrolled at Northampton Tech to learn welding, then moved into the radiator business, eventually running his own company.
Awesome BSA Gold Star
The Triumph was traded in for a 350cc BSA Gold Star, “an awesome bit of kit and I wish I’d never sold it,” he says.
“After about five years I sold it for £95, and six months later they were fetching £2,500 and they can now reach £50,000.
“It was the first production racer. When I bought it it had been on the racetrack and put back on the road again, and another guy raced it after I sold it.”
By 1967, Roger had lost too many friends to fatal road accidents, and decided not to replace the Gold Star, instead taking up grass-track racing, which is basically speedway on grass.
“A group of about 30 of us used to meet up and go out for a ride,” he remembers. “Eighteen people we used to knock about with were killed in one year.
“It was always the tail end Charlies that got hit trying to keep up, though I was never out with them when someone got killed.”
Even so, enough was enough, and for more than 20 years Roger had no road bike.
“Best years of my life”
“I got my adrenaline kicks from the racing,” he says. “They were the best years of my life.”
Starting off an a borrowed 350cc Royal Enfield, Roger graduated to a 500cc, purpose-built grass track bike engineered by friend John Callow.
“He asked me to ride it, but I said I’d never ridden one,” says Roger. “He said ‘see how you handle it’, and I took to it like a duck to water.
“In those days every area had a club and they all used to run meetings. We’d see adverts in the MCN (Motorcycle News) and enter the meeting. We had a choice of five or six meetings a weekend in those days. Now it’s a lot less – the farmers won’t let the land because if anything happens they are responsible.”
Having quit road biking, grass track racing still carried its own obvious dangers.
“I came off quite a few times – one time a frame broke on me and a bolt went straight into my knee cap,” he says. “But two weeks later I was racing again. You couldn’t keep us down.”
Roger’s talent and perseverance brought him a South Midland championship title, and a memorable outing in the national championships at Lydden.
“I did a faster time in the national than Anders Michanek (world speedway champion in 1974) did in the international,” he says. “I did only finish two races though!”
By the late 1970s, with a daughter, Emma, and son, Gary, to think of, Roger called a halt to his racing.
“My mind wasn’t on it”
“My mind wasn’t on it,” he says. “You start thinking about your family, especially when there’s no money in it. Me and John shared the prize money – you could pick up £15-£20 a meeting, which covered running costs but that’s all.”
For years, Roger was an ex-biker until he decided to get back in the saddle in 1989, buying a Kawasaki GPZ 600 and riding it to the Bol D’Or at Paul Ricard with a group of bikers from Northampton.
“One of the lads in the village encouraged me to go along,” he says. “There were 22 of us, and that first year I knew hardly any of them, and now they’re good mates.
“I remember it taking the whole group of us 45 minutes to go through a French service station.
“Because the French groups were all filling up and then going off without paying, they turned the pumps off after each pair of us and wouldn’t turn them on again until the first ones had paid.”
The following year, Roger did the same trip to the endurance race in the South of France on his brand new GSXR, at the time in standard specification, completing the return journey in just 12 hours – allowing for an hour waiting for a ferry.
Roger would complete the same journey several more times, joining crowds of 350,000 who flocked to the famous circuit, while son Gary also joined his father on overseas rides.
“That’s got to be illegal”
“When I bought the Suzuki, I took Gary on the back to Assen,” he says. “We stopped in Holland to find somewhere to stay, and a woman said ‘that’s got to be illegal that little boy on the back of that bike’.
“He was only nine or 10 and he loved it, though he did keep falling asleep on the back. I could always tell because his helmet would hit me on the back of the head.”
The first change to the bike was a Devil exhaust, “because it made a nice sound – all the French had got them”.
But the modifications stepped up a few gears in 1995, when Roger saw a trade stand showing a Martek 750 on a trip to Cadwell Park.
He put a deposit down there and then, eventually paying £3,000 for the frame kit, which included the tank, battery box, swinging arm, rear wheel spindle and footrests among other things.
Roger then paid an extra £150 to have the frame polished, and it was finished in time for a trip to the Isle of Man TT in 1996.
The 1990 GSXR was already a good bike before Roger’s modifications, which have been ongoing over the past 20-plus years.
“The previous model had handling issues, but the test reports were raving about this one, so I thought ‘I’ll try one of them’,” he says.
“I could have had the 750, but the 1100 was only a few hundred pounds more, so I thought I’ll have that, and I’m glad I did.”
A claimed 149bhp
The bike had a claimed 149bhp, but Roger says you were lucky to get 125bhp out of a factory machine.
“The exhaust, ignition advancer and the polished and ported head has pushed the power up on mine, and it’s also much lighter than a standard bike,” he says.
“It took me three years to get the geometry set up right, and now it handles like a dream.”
It’s also won a raft of awards at shows around the country, where it’s ridden, not trailered.
“A lot of people build these bikes, put them in shows but they don’t ever get ridden,” he says. “I ride it. One guy said ‘I can see you ride that because there’s road dirt on the bottom of the engine…’”
As well as the GSXR, Roger owned a Triumph Sprint ST, and then a Yamaha Fazer 1000 which he traded in for a new Kawasaki Z1000X in 2017.
He’s restored a Harris and sold it, and is now restoring another, while five years ago he won a fully restored 1952 Triumph Speed Twin in a raffle at the Stafford Classic Motorcycle Show.
Win a bike for 25p
“I was walking around on the Saturday morning and saw on the Vintage Motorcycle Club stand that you could win this bike for 25p,” he says.
“I said ‘you can have whatever change I’ve got in my pocket’. I only had 25p, so I bought one ticket. Then on December 19 I had just come back from the pub and the phone rang. The bloke said ‘you’ve won the bike’. I said ‘who is this, are you pulling my leg?’ He said ‘I’ll ring back when you’ve had time to sober up…’.”
Rather than sell it for a quick buck, Roger plans to hold on to the Triumph: “It’s making money while it’s sitting there.”
Meanwhile, the Martek-framed Suzuki will probably continue to cost money rather than make it, all the while Roger continues to tinker with his ultimate bike.
“It’s always changing,” he laughs, “and I’ve no intention of adding up what I’ve spent on it.”
From the look in his eye, you can tell it was worth every penny.
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