A very Scottish superstar

Published on 3rd July 2024
Author George Dodds
Leading Mike Hiftle at Shielfield

As our mid-term break continues and the attention turns to Manchester and next week’s Speedway of Nations extravaganza we await the next visitors to Shielfield Park.

Edinburgh arrive on 27 July, a side not short of colourful personalities over the years, skipper Paco Castagna keeping the flame alight for the showmen from over the border.

But even the tonsorial delights of the extrovert Italian are overshadowed by the man who led the Monarchs out of the wilderness and into the second tier of British speedway in 1977.

With wire-rimmed glasses and a demeanour more in keeping with a bank manager – assuming your bank manager wore a C U Jimmy wig and a kilt at any given opportunity – for almost two decades Bert Harkins was the epitome of a very Scottish speedway superstar.

While he may not have the collection of winged wheels hanging in the trophy room of Mauger, Briggs, Moore, Olsen or Michenek, Bertola was able to hold his head high in their company on tracks around the world … and he was a lot funnier!

Keeping Ronnie Moore at bay

Having made his name with Edinburgh in the 60s, Bert moved with the Monarchs to Coatbridge in 1968 when Meadowbank was commandeered and demolished for the 1970 Commonwealth Games.

He then moved again, along with the First Division licence, spending two years leading the resurrected Wembley Lions, always ready to don kilt and tam o shanter for the grand parade around the Empire Stadium.

He also came within an ace of earning Scotland a place at the sports’ international top table, finishing just one point short of a bronze medal in the 1970 World Best Pairs.

Harkins, eight points, and partner Jim McMillan finished with a total of 18 points that night in Malmo, one behind the English pairing of Nigel and Eric Boocock in a meeting won by Ivan Mauger and Ronnie Moore, the Kiwis beating Sweden’s Ove Fundin and Bengt Jansson.

This was a period when Scotland was still active on the international scene with Bert, McMillan, George Hunter and Bobby Beaton all effective First Division heat leaders, Scotland were worthy competitors in the World Team Cup qualifying rounds of the 70s, taking their place alongside England, Australia and New Zealand.

Harkins was the big omission from the Scottish side in these qualifiers which, controversially, were staged on Sunday afternoons. That interfered with the opportunities for the star names of British speedway to make big money on the continental long tracks and, particularly New Zealand, often struggled to put out full strength sides.

Getting a helping hand from a fellow Scot in the Meadowbank pits

England won five successive WTCs in the 70s but notoriously struggled to qualify for the finals when they were scheduled to be held in the soulless White City bowl.

Australia pipped them at Reading in 1976 – a year with a strong Bandits’ presence as Willie Templeton lined up as reserve for Scotland while New Zealand, led by Larry Ross, included Dave Gifford, Colin Farquharson and Jack Millen in their ranks along with future Berrington legend Bruce Cribb.

Ironically Harkins’ only qualifying appearance in the Saltire the following year, came after he had dropped into the second division, returning to the Monarchs to lead the Edinburgh revival at their plush Powderhall home as speedway returned to the Scottish capital after an 18 year absence.

Following the closure of Wembley Harkins – by now based down south – spent a year at Sheffield before returning to the capital for three successful seasons at Wimbledon.

During that spell he toured the world with Ivan Mauger and Barry Briggs’ World Series Troupe, including a three match series against USA in 1974 at the legendary Costa Mesa circuit in California.

His brand of showmanship went down a storm in the sunshine state, so much so that when the Americans decided to copy the British speedway blueprint in 1976 and launch league racing he was a star attraction to the fledgling league.

Harkins collected his only league winners’ medal as the Bakersfield Bandits swept all before them as Bert was joined by Digger Helm, Jeff Sexton, Sonny Nutter, Donny Cullum, Thumper Short and Dave Galvin in lifting the silverware.

While few of those names were ever heard of outside southern California others such as Bobby Schwartz at Ventura Sharks, LA Sprockets’ (Irwindale) duo Bruce Penhall and Mike Bast, Rick Woods of Costa Mesa Eagles and Dennis Sigalos at San Bernadino Sizzlers would become household names on this side of the Atlantic.

Each league meeting ended with a nominated riders’ heat – it only took us 20 years to catch on – but in general America decided it preferred to see all its stars every week competing individually and usually in handicap racing.

As a result Bert was able to put his experience on the tiny Californian tracks to good use as he set sail for Scotland.

Leading Brian Collins and John Boulger as a Wembley Lion

He would probably be the first to admit that the tight turns of Powderhall were more to his liking than the long straights at Shielfield but Scotland’s most famous speedway export proved to be a steady and effective skipper as Edinburgh returned to the ranks.

In all he had three fine seasons but the travelling from his Hertfordshire home and juggling a successful motorcycle business proved too much. A successful hurrah for Milton Keynes Knights in 1980 saw Bert retire while still a more than useful rider.

He was far from lost to the sport, his motorcycle spares business flourishing and becoming a prominent member and current President of the World Speedway Riders’ Association and often pressed into action as team manager and chief cheerleader at Scotland’s intermittent test match career.

All that came to an abrupt halt in the 80s when the FIM controversially decreed that Scotland was no longer an independent country speedway-wise – a situation that Bert, and a certain centre green presenter not a million miles from here, among others, are keen to change.

Enjoying a fling with Pogo Collins on Scotland duty
Pictures: Courtesy John Somerville Collection
George Dodds
George Dodds

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