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HomeNEWSJohn Denning looks back on a life with Suzuki

John Denning looks back on a life with Suzuki

The following is an unabridged version of a letter from John Denning of Crescent Suzuki which appears in the March issue of British Dealer News. Although we didn’t have space to carry the full version in the magazine, we think you will enjoy it in its entirety here online.

 

John Denning looks back on a life with Suzuki

My father, Ted (“Pop”), born in Guernsey in 1908, left school at 14 and worked at a car/motorcycle dealership. Saving hard, he managed to start his own business in 1935 and built a successful motorcycle dealership on the island up until the outbreak of the Second World War, whereupon Churchill advised the Channel Islanders that there weren’t the resources to defend the islands and that they should evacuate.

This was a difficult decision for everyone, but my parents finally decided, particularly as I was only three weeks old, to take one of the last boats. Ted didn’t think he’d be allowed on, but with such a young baby they said he could board — so he had to make a decision with less than two hours to go before the boat sailed. He rushed home, packed a case, grabbed all the cash he had, locked the house and shop and gave my grandparents the keys. He left his Studebaker at the docks and a friend returned it to his garage. Apparently a German officer seconded it without permission and returned it after a few days, and it stayed there for five years.

So the family, along with hundreds of others, headed for Weymouth. We were followed into the channel by a German U-boat — my older sister still vaguely remembers the situation. For most of the next five years Ted spent managing a large army motorcycle repair depot, Marshals of Cambridge. My earliest memory is of going there on my tricycle and fetching buns for the staff.

THE FIRST BOAT HOME

As soon as the war ended in 1945 our family was on the earliest boat back to Guernsey. Even as a five-year-old I remember the docks being crowded with people desperate to get to the Red Cross food parcels, as towards the end of the war both they and the Germans were extremely short of food — and  resorting to making seaweed soup and suchlike.

On reaching our home my parents found the house exactly as they left it. My grandparents had kept up the pretence that the house was occupied for five years, and it was probably one of very few empty properties that escaped being taken over by the occupying forces. Amazingly the shop showroom plate glass wasn’t broken, but the interior had been converted into a soup kitchen to feed the hundreds of East European workers (who were treated like slaves) who had been brought to the islands to build the large gun emplacements. These were intended to repel any attempt by the Allies to retake the islands, although this was never an option for overstretched British forces.

My father rebuilt the business with an agency for Triumph and Matchless. After being isolated for five years the islanders were eager customers, and business was good as the hard times of occupation gradually receded. Sand/beach racing was restarted, and Pop ran two riders, one on a Speed Twin and the other (my hero as a 6/10-year-old), Jimmy Lanyon on a 3TA. Many memories of these being tuned, then tested on the local roads — happy days! Jimmy sometimes gave me a ride with a block of foam on the rear fender and no helmets, me hanging on. The main opposition came from Billy Green, the BSA agent, but Jimmy was virtually unbeatable. He unfortunately smashed himself up in the TT a few years later.

Two of Pop’s sisters moved to Bournemouth in the late 1940s, and as my parents were by this time finding the nine by three-mile Island constricting, he sold up and the family moved there in 1950. A small shop in Charminster Road on the corner of St Albans Crescent (hence the name Crescent) was found, and he started with various lightweight motorcycles and bicycles.

I’d had my eye on a 1936 BSA 250 that he’d taken in and tidied up. So I was soon being taken out to one of the disused airfields in the New Forest to spend many great hours riding. Of course there were no restrictions then, and I had to watch out for the local guys thrashing around on their various quick bikes.

TON-UP ON THE A31

One terrific memory from when I was 11 was accompanying Pop (once I reached 11ish I always called him Pop) to Comerfords (big dealer in Thames Ditton) to purchase a 1938 Brough Superior SS100. Pop rode it back with me on the pillion, with our flat caps turned backwards, and he confided to me that he’d seen more than 100mph
on the speedo along the A31 before Ringwood. He restored it as new, and it would be worth a fortune now, particularly as Lawrence of Arabia had many Broughs, and was tragically killed on one just a few miles west of Bournemouth.

It wasn’t premeditated, but after doing my GCE exams it was decided that I’d join the business in late 1956. The premises gradually expanded rearwards and we stocked many different makes of mainly light/medium weight bikes: NSU, BSA, DKW, James, Binetta, Ankermatic, Gilera, Puch, Lambretta, Zundapp, New Hudson etc. Plus a range of engines that attached to a bicycle to convert them into a sort of moped, making them into 35mph whippy machines with very little braking and luckily no MOTs.

ENTER SUZUKI

This was all to change, however, in late 1963, when looking out of the workshop window one day I noticed a car arrive with a trailer holding three lightweight motorcycles. The gentleman came in (was it Maurice Knight?) saying he was from Peter Agg (Lambretta importers), who were going to start bringing in Suzuki motorcycles. We pulled them off the trailer and did a good road test — and were very impressed with them compared to what we were selling. It was a no-brainer, and we decided to take them on.

Those first three models were an M15D 50cc motorcycle, an M30 50cc scooterette, a K10 80cc motorcycle, all two-strokes. I recall selling the M30 for £68/17s/6d “on the road”, with comprehensive insurance, any rider, for £1/5s.

The Suzuki range grew fast, too many to list. Most notable were the GT250s and the GT380, 550, 750 triples. Their first four-stroke, the GS750, was introduced in 1975, with the GS650 and 850 shaft drives later, plus the GS1000. I built my son Paul a 50cc schoolboy “scrambler” in 1972 for his sixth birthday. A little later an AP50 tuning kit was obtained from Japan and slotted into a Gilera sports moped frame, which my younger son also used.

However, when Paul at nine years old got the first pukka motocross RM80 in 1976 (collected from Beamish, then the Suzuki off-road importer) that was a wake-up call for other dads because he won all three races on that bike at his first event and sales for that model, including a bigger wheel kit that I developed myself, went very well.

SALES ACHIEVEMENT HOLIDAYS

The 1980s brought the Katanas and of course TS/ZR 50 sports mopeds, which sold very well, and in 1985 the introduction of the iconic GSXR750. I believe we sold our first one in late 1985 — I remember trying it out by delivering it to the customer some 12 miles away. I was extremely impressed. The GSXR success continued, and the whole Suzuki range was doing well. It was the days of quite lavish dealer conferences and sales achievement holidays. I remember a great two weeks in Texas.

Paul, after his A-levels, decided against a US university course (racing motocross had become a bigger priority than education) and joined the business in 1985. Pop had unfortunately left us in 1984, the year we increased the size of the premises by buying the shop next door. With Paul’s forward thinking and youthful enthusiasm, Crescent continued to move forward.

I continued to be relatively cautious, as Pop had been, which has helped our longevity. Paul continued to compete regularly in motocross, but I decided to change from motorsports to horses. I don’t regret those years of doing cross-country events and show-jumping, certainly a big commitment (you can’t just park them in the garage). But I did injure myself far more than in motorsport — when you start at 45 years you never really crack it. However, I still enjoy hacking out on the horses now at 78.

With the GSXR range etc, business continued well in the 1980s and 90s and we purchased a shop across the road for used bikes. In 1994 we decided to convert the flats above the main shop into a parts, accessories, and clothing department, much to the horror of the local planning authorities, but we somehow managed to get away with it.

A NEW DIRECTION

When in summer 1993 Paul said he would like to have a go at circuit racing, little did we know that that would be the start of a new direction/career for Paul and Crescent. He’d done many track/training days, so we took an RGV250 from stock and prepared it. Off he went to Snetterton for his first event in August, complete with novice jacket, took part in three races and won all three. I had a riding competition so missed it. Later, in 1994, he raced a GSXR750SP in club events, then the next year, with it bored out to 884cc, contested the National Cup championship.

Paul had a somewhat light-hearted attitude to club racing, and I could relate many amusing incidents. The stewards were generally not impressed by his lengthy wheelies. In 1996, with teammate Ian Cobby, Paul formed a Crescent venture into BSB. I was now also becoming more involved with the racing activity, curtailing my horse riding, which at least cut down on the falls and injuries.

In those days a large entry meant you had to qualify even to get on the grid. The season progressed with some reasonable results, which was very acceptable with a 36-rider field, many whom were top quality — Mackenzie, Whitham, Hislop, Rymer, Moodie etc. The last-named started Paul’s move into management, when Moodie left his Ducati team and offered to ride our Suzuki for the remainder of the season, qualifying and finishing sixth at Cadwell Park, his first event. Luckily Suzuki GB agreed to cover his salary demands. Much to our dismay Ian broke his leg badly at the same event. Sponsorship wasn’t very forthcoming and a big percentage of it was spent on a dry clutch assembly sourced from the factory. It cost nearly as much as a new R750.  

Crescent Racing was up and running and would be competing with Suzuki in BSB and WSB through to 2015. Approximately 25,000 racing laps, many podiums, many wins and a few championships. Paul also managed Suzuki’s Factory MotoGP team from 2005 to 2011, which was a privilege to be involved with. Many great riders have been with us over the years, too many to list now and maybe not fair to mention only a few, although Cal Crutchlow is the only one to have won in MotoGP. Also, the “battle” in 2000 between our own Chris Walker and Neil Hodgson is still regarded as one of the most exciting seasons ever. Paul enjoys working with the very talented Alex Lowes and Michael van der Mark, now of course working with Yamaha in World Superbike.

GOING MULTI-FRANCHISE

GSXR sales continued apace in the mid-2000s, with us selling more than 100 John Reynolds race replicas alone in 2004. The recession obviously affected everyone and forced us to go multi-franchise, as we now had premises in Verwood and, soon after, Southampton. This led us to the tough decision to move Suzuki, after 46 years at Bournemouth, to Verwood. However, the great news is that with a reorganisation, Suzuki returned “home” in January 2019 and into a larger space as we’d managed to purchase the next-door premises to add to the showroom. So the business area is now at least ten times larger than what my father started with in 1950.

We’re now looking forward to the 70th anniversary of Crescent in 2020 and our association with Suzuki reaching 60 years in 2023 — maybe time for another visit to Hamamatsu? When Paul and I were last there a few years ago I was told that only one person at the factory had a longer association with them than I had, and that was Mr Suzuki. While mentioning lengthy service I must thank Mark Lapham (39 years) and Frank Hayden (37 years) for sticking around through thick and thin, plus quite a number of other staff who have been with us a considerable time.

Writing this has reminded me what a great journey it has been, and I’m very much looking forward to the Crescent Suzuki partnership continuing on to an even more successful future, and hopefully to some more iconic models coming off the drawing board.

 

John Denning

Crescent Suzuki

Formerly EC Denning

Bournemouth


 

 

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