Not your average day...
I bought a bike and I bought the company in the same day
Sitting in Hesketh’s new home, a small, glass-fronted workshop on a Surrey industrial estate, you can’t help but feel this traditionally British brand has got a proper motoring heart pumping all sorts of old biking fluids and smells through its employees. You have to 'feel bike' to work here.
Employing just 6 people including his daughter, son-in-law and PR lady, the all-new 21st century Hesketh team is led by owner, Paul Sleeman, the self-confessed hyper-critical ex-Cosworth engineer who bought the company in 2010. Ever since, he and his team have poured their souls into a brand new bike, the ‘24’, due to be unveiled in June which Sleeman states is the company’s “reintroduction to the world”.
The new machine wasn’t at Hesketh’s new home when I visited but hidden away instead at Sleeman’s house not far away. “You can’t see it yet, it’ll be ready in June and then you can ride it. You’ll love it.”, he said proudly. Here is a man who lives, breathes and sleeps British bikes. So much so that when I turned up he was wearing a Norton jacket!
His chirpy, positive disposition is perhaps what the Hesketh brand needs to succeed but Sleeman is very aware that the problem past may have tainted the brand’s reputation, “We’ve being going since 2010, well my part, so we’ve already been around for twice as long as the original factory! There’s been quite a delay (with the new bike) but when we create a part for the bike I stand back and if I don’t like it then I’ll throw it away because unless I’m completely happy I’m not sending it out there. And I take full responsibility. This bike will only be unveiled once and this company cannot afford to fall over again.”
Hesketh’s history in the words of its new owner
After the F1 glory day(s) of the late 70’s, Lord Hesketh shut the doors on that escapade and in trying to find jobs for the F1 boys, started with the bikes in 1980. Lordy (as Sleeman affectionately calls him) wanted it to be the biggest, brashest and the most expensive. “Typical him”, says Sleeman.
And they built the V-Twin V1000. They had the choice of two engine designers; Brian Hart or Harry Weslake and they went with Weslake and that was the death of the company because the warranty claims were so high. 150 were made and 150 came back in the same year due to engine problems. It had piston problems, all sorts of technical issues but the Hesketh team now know what the problems were. The bike was designed to be shaft-driven so the engine rotation was of course designed to run in the normal correct way but BMW stepped in and said ‘you can’t use that, patent infringement’. So, they put a chain on it and had to find a way for the engine to run with a chain but the gearbox was already done so the only way to make the engine work was to run it in reverse. They found a way to do that by running the crankshaft in an anti-clockwise direction but what they didn’t realise that the oil system was therefore running in reverse and that’s when it all blew up.
All in all, that is what caused the company to close down in 1982. It was reformed in 1983 based at the Lord’s house – that lasted another year before closing down. Mick Broom, the company’s original development engineer, then ran the company from his shed for the last 30 years basically servicing the existing bikes and keeping the company ticking along.
There’s no more than 250 Hesketh bikes on the road now world-wide. Some still come up now at auctions that are unregistered, sitting in sheds and barns from the original liquidation auction. Sleeman told us that he was offered one recently with a whole pallet of parts. He said “There’s still some floating around but back then the company’s profile had died a death and while Mick Broom is a terrific engineer he’s not a business man so he sat there and tinkered away.
He’s in his 70’s now but he still rides, he’s still a good racer so I’ve thought about asking him to test the new bike. He’s like a mad lunatic! But he was there from day 1, when the new bike was conceived.”
How do you end up buying a motorcycle company?
Until 6 years ago, Sleeman had earned a living as a mechanical engineer. "Engines is what I used to do, for 30 years", he reiterates.
"I started off as a general mechanic and then progressed through life, getting a bit more adventurous, I started tuning and for the last 20 years I suppose I was tuning at Cosworth working on both the car and racing side, all turbo-charged engines."
Then, about 6 years ago, his Eureka moment came. Having bought a new Diesel pick-up truck and despite his engineering background, he managed to fill it up with petrol, took it down the road and blew it up! He called Mazda who towed it away, checked the vehicle over and reported back telling him his error which of course he denied.
This led to an invention; the ‘Diesel Key’ – a miss-fuelling prevention device. Sleeman designed this mechanical device which now most emergency vehicles have as well as Mercedes-Benz, meaning that only a diesel fuel nozzle will fit. He showed a prototype which was approved and naturally went into manufacturing. The design was patented, rigorously tested by Thatcham and MIRA and is now the only fully-approved after-market device in the world.
Love at first sight
I'd never seen a Hesketh before and I thought 'that looks a bit sweet'
Sleeman continues, "I’ve always been a British bike nut, since a child. I was living in Kingswood and as a result of the success with the Diesel key I was able to have a collection of British bikes – Triumph’s, Norton’s, Norton Rotary’s you know, that sort of thing. One day I was riding through Carshalton and I saw a Hesketh parked outside a pub – never seen one before and I thought ‘that looks a bit sweet’. I knew nothing about them, only very little from back in the day.
"So I went home and got on the internet and tried to find out where I could buy one. I found out that they were horribly expensive and then I saw an advert with Mick Broome, so I contacted him and said ‘have you got a bike for sale’, he said ‘yeah come and see me’ so I went to Northampton the next day. He told me about his ambitions which was simply to retire, close Hesketh down and call it a day. We reached an agreement so I bought a bike and I bought the company in the same day, as you do!
"So I started working up there for about six months, two or three days a week as Mick bought me up to speed with the old bikes. I then decided to move the company to Kingswood which was three years ago and all the enjoyment went away as we turned it into a business! It started off as a hobby and now we are here and we’re moving forward and we are developing.”
Raising the old brand
As soon as Hesketh belonged to Sleeman, he realised there was a need for a new Hesketh, something to reinvigorate the reignite the brand.
"Even back in 2010 Mick and I were out meeting people, meeting every engine company you can imagine. We couldn’t find a new engine, you still can’t find a new engine; we met the likes of Cosworth, Ilmor, Rotax, we even spoke to Aprilia, Triumph, everyone with a view to being an engine supplier. They are in such supply and we’ve got such small numbers and that’s when the S&S thing came in. They are a good, solid engine which of course isn’t known as a motorcycle engine, it’s more commonly known on the front of a Morgan, the three-wheeler.
Ours is a slightly higher-tuned engine, it’s a good robust motor which we haven’t had to do anything with, it performs certain functions – it’s a Euro3 compliant so we can trade oversees without having to go through all the nasty validation that you have to go through. And it’s got a warranty so if there’s a problem we just get on the phone to S&S and that suits us.” Sleeman explained.
The Hesketh brand has enjoyed recent prominence with the film 'Rush' depicting the 1974-75 Formula One World Championship escapades of James Hunt, who raced for Hesketh, and Nikki Lauda. Hunt's '74 Hesketh was recently purchased at an RM Auction by Radio 2 DJ and car fantatic, Chris Evans for £226,000*.
Photo credit: Tom Wood © 2014 courtesy of RM Auctions
The 24 is born
"The thing about the 24 – it’s a number that follows me around – the original F1 car was number 24, I was born on the 24th, even my parking space here is number 24! And you’ve got to look at Hesketh as a whole, the company was originally a fantastic engineering company, in the Lord’s old mansion house they used to have Dyno’s in there and they used to run the old F1 Cosworth V8’s from there, they supplied to the likes of Williams and Lotus. They developed the RS200 rally cars there so there was a lot more to Hesketh than the failures. The most successful part was of course James Hunt’s F1 victory in the 24 car so I wanted to concentrate on the success not the failures of the business.
We looked at a V6 option which was heart-breakingly expensive for a company of our size.
"The whole 24 project has been based around the motor. Hesketh’s no good without the motor but the motor they did have isn’t there. Rotax are full-up with BMW so you’re not going to get an engine out of them. I was very close to a deal with a French company based at Magny-Cours GP circuit called ‘Sodemo’ and they made an engine for the Voxan – it was a 72 degree V-Twin. So that was a year worth of flying back and forth, discussing ideas and so on but it didn’t materialise because like most people they wait until the last minute before asking for £500k. So we left that.
"We had our hearts set on the S&S motor. We did a lot of design ideas with the bike, based on each of the different motors we were looking at. We’ve had John Mockett work for us, he’s now at Triumph but he came up with some good concepts.
24 spec, price and next steps
The 24 will be a single-seat bike but the platform will allow Hesketh to go on to a twin-seat version with somewhat more contemporary styling and a different exhaust system allowing for more freedom with the fuel tanks.
Sleeman contines, "We’ve then got the engineering platform to base everything on thereafter so we can get continuity. The 24 will be made to order at £35,000 each.
"What we plan to do though, the bikes after that will be closer to £30k. So Triumph, in terms of cost, are at the bottom then Norton who have sold the Domiracer for around £24k, then us and then Brough so we’ll fit in between them and it separates us from the others.
"We’re British at the core with so many features which are going onto the ‘24’ that we’ve taken from the original model so whilst there’s a huge gap, there’s no evolution. We’re still trying to make it look like an evolution – we’ll make the new one like a Hesketh would look. So instead of coming out with something completely different like a Fireblade, there’ll still be some shared components on the new bike – only feature pieces such as the engine cover with the engraved Hesketh signature which happened to fit perfectly.
"I’m hyper-critical but I’m beginning to enjoy this bike now. I’m not a stylist but everyone who you speak to thinks they are! I won’t deny it, it’s quite nervy times but I don’t fear the engineering side at all – the riding of the bike, the mechanics of the bike, I’m brimmed with confidence about that.
Being a Hesketh we have certain standards, it’s got to look right and in keeping with Hesketh and also it’s got to have the finish you’d expect. The bar was set quite high with that first bike, it was draped with the best stuff, you know that had Brembo brakes, Marzocchi suspension and Astralite wheels…and that was 1982!
The new bike will use a keyless ignition and will instead be operational by a transponder on your person. I'm looking at the regulations to see if I can get the bike to shut off automatically if the rider becomes detached.
We're looking at at a keyless ignition
The seating position will be dictated by the size of the motor and the primary drive with the foot pegs in a more "racy position" than you’d expect, a bit more aggressive if you like. We were told that it’ll be broad but not tall and in fact much smaller than the V1000.
Sleeman is determined not to cut any corners with the quality of his first foray into designing and building a motorcycle with his company name. The transmission will be from a Cadillac which in turn uses a King Kong clutch. Stack instruments with buttons and dials, "nothing digital, harking back to the old F1 days", he says.
Even when S&S approached Hesketh having identified a problem they’d been having with the cambelt fraying and eventually snapping in the UK on the Morgan, Team Hesketh set to work. They redesigned the cover, made it marginally narrower and put it in the wind tunnel and checked the airflow over it. Once happy that it draws the heat out, they reported their findings back to S&S.
And the future of Hesketh
The firm are both clear with theory and confident with their ability of keeping as much as of their future machines as British as possible because by making as much as they can means they're also not "bunging all your profit out the door", as Sleemand puts it.
Despite this, the frames for the 24 will be outsourced to America. Why? "Simple, because these big twins break things so we have to use the experience of a company who are used to doing these things for long enough. We’ve got CNC machines coming at the end June hopefully so we’ll be taking more people on then."
"I don’t think we’ll sell a new Hesketh to an original Hesketh owner, they are of a certain type of person, very supportive but they like what they like. I think the audience will be the guys who want something unique, the type of people who pull up to the lights and don’t want to sit next to the same thing. You can still come in and choose your fit and your finish, seat cover and so on, they’re all tailored - there’s an almost unlimited list of options. If you want it in Bright Orange then so be it."
"We do have connections in America and Dubai, possibly a chance for a showroom out there. The Arabs love something that is unique, they have all the money in the world but they don’t want the same as the next person. They’ll cover it diamonds or something!
Meanwhile, we'll be attending the press launch and riding the 24 very soon so keep your eyes peeled for more information, photos and our thoughts.
* RM Auctions does not release information on buyers or sellers