William Thomas Evans Lawless – you’ll know him better as ‘Bill’ but to me he was simply ‘dad’ – checked out on Christmas Day at the grand old age of 84. For a man without a religious bone in his body, his timing was irreverently impeccable.
You’re holding Bill’s legacy in your hands. He launched Trials and Motocross News in May 1977 and steered it until 1996. A quarter-of-a-century later his presence is still evident in every single page thanks to the team that inherited TMX but his journalistic roots ran much, much deeper.
“Never let the truth get in the way of a good headline, kid” was one of his maxims. Of course, he didn’t mean it. Bill was straight out of the old-school when it came to journalism and the truth was sacrosanct – unless he had to bend it slightly, usually because of a motorcycle purchase.
Bill’s biggest passions in life were words and horsepower. Of course, he loved his family fiercely – and he was also partial to the smell of a wet dog in front of an open fire – but if John Steinbeck had written it or Vincent had engineered it, well, you were going to struggle to get his attention because his mind was in Cannery Row (or at the Vincent factory in Stevenage).
I grew up surrounded by books and bikes. There would be a Bertolt Brecht anthology open on the kitchen table while a TY80 chain bubbled away in my mum’s chip pan on the stove. Fortunately, oven chips were invented around the same time – although even these had to occasionally jostle for position with a random bike part that needed “a bit of heat to free it off”.
It’s hard to know where to start when it comes to writing an appreciation of his life but he was a huge admirer of Dylan Thomas so I guess we need to begin at the beginning.
Bill was born on Burns Night in 1936 in Hyde, Manchester. That night may or may not have been bible-black. His dad, also Bill, was an ex-pro boxer who had his own building company. His mum, Kathleen, was an indomitable lady who instilled in her son a life-long respect for women.
He got hooked on motorbikes from an early age thanks to a sympathetic teacher at the boarding school he was sent to who let him tear up the yard on his Cycle Master. Nothing more than a bicycle with a small engine bolted on the back, it was a tame introduction to an obsession that shaped his life.
“My mother bought me my first motorbike which was an old sprung hub Triumph 500cc Speed Twin,” he said. “I fell off it on day two and she said it was too big for me so she bought me a new DMW which had a 197 Villiers engine. Then I went into the army. I had to go in anyway so I signed on for three years instead of doing national service for two.”
Based in Germany, he swung bombs as a heavyweight boxer for his regiment and rose to the heady heights of sergeant before being demoted to corporal following a late-night altercation in a local bierkeller when he should have been on duty, not swinging bombs.
The army also allowed him to indulge in his love of motorcycling.
“I was a despatch rider for a time on a bloody great 500cc side-valve BSA M20. There was a time when I had to overtake a convoy, lead it to a main road and then hold traffic up while I let the convoy through. There were a lot of cobbled roads in Germany and they were icy that day.
“I was grimly accelerating – this thing was flat as a fart – and I lost it and fell off and a big QL Bedford ran over me. Literally. I can see it now, the prop shaft and all the wheels juddering. I lay there and it cleared me. I thought my last day had come.”
It should be clearly stated that he was rubbish at off-road riding which led to an awful lot of awkward bollockings when I too turned out to be rubbish at off-road riding. To his credit, when another schoolboy dad yelled at his own hapless offspring ‘if I could ride a bike I’d show you how to clean that section’ Bill relished the irony.
After leaving the army he embarked on a short career as a mechanic before joining the Kent and Sussex Courier in Tunbridge Wells as a trainee journalist, commuting from his home in Tenterden on a Vincent Black Shadow.
While he was there a new policy was introduced, banning company vehicles from leaving the circulation area. Explaining how his works van came to be on its roof in a ditch in Cornwall could have been tricky – fortunately, his dad and a few mates were on hand to chuck the wreck onto a low-loader and drive 300 miles back to a more suitable Kentish ditch where it was duly deposited.
Following a stint on a newspaper in the East End of London, Bill and three mates attempted to drive to South Africa in a Ford Popular but ran out of money in Casablanca where he signed on the MV Skagern and became part of the Swedish merchant navy. He was dismissed when the captain found out he hadn’t told his mum where he was.
Bill edited Motorcycle Mechanics in the mid ’60s, competed in road race and sprint events and then got a job as motoring correspondent on the Brighton Evening Argus, embarking on a short scrambling career on a 500cc AJS. It was during this time he interviewed Laurence Olivier after spending the night in a bush. He was mortified when he lowered his considerable frame onto an antique chair at the actor’s Brighton apartment, only for it to splinter under his weight. Luckily, Larry didn’t bat an eyelid.
A good few years later he cracked open a bottle of malt that Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham pulled out of an aluminium coffin and handed to him. He also harassed Dave Lee Travis over a full English breakfast at the very first Kickstart TV show at Donington Park.
Despite getting married and calming down, the bikes continued to come thick and fast with more Vincents, Ducatis, a Laverda and a succession of Kawasakis, BMWs and pretty much every other marque in between.
Doug Hacking’s in Bolton was his safe place for many years. On one momentous day in the late ’70s he set off on his latest lump of Japanese metal – it was a Zed something or other – to ‘pop in’ at Dougie’s. He chopped it in for a Beemer (his weapon-of-choice as he got older), got halfway home down the M61 and decided it was gutless and went back to trade it in. That’s three bikes in one day. Luckily, my mum Hazel loved the bones of him.
It was on a run to Doug’s when he proudly leaned back to point at the speedo that was hovering around 110mph. He’d just inducted his son into the ‘ton-up kid’ club. I had a double nose-bleed from the repeated impact of his leather jacket but, hugging him tightly, I’d never felt safer. I wish I’d told him.
He was working as Chief Features Writer on the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette when he responded to an advert in a journalist trade magazine looking for an editor for a new publication dedicated to off-road motorcycling.
“I saw an ad in the UK Press Gazette. It was a bit cryptic but I wrote off, got an interview and one very snowy day I went over from Saltburn where we were living. It was exactly 100 miles – I remember because I commuted for a time. I left on a Z1000 Kawasaki, fell off it and managed to get back home and got the XT500 out.
“Bob Clough was the Managing Director of Morecambe Press and one of his lads, Mike, was an AMCA scrambler. I remember turning up in a filthy old wax cotton Barbour suit having just ridden through snow and ice – they thought I’d done it for effect but I hadn’t. I think the car was off the road at the time.”
The ’car’ at the time was actually a clapped-out ex-Co-Operative hearse. Let’s just throw that one out there.
“Bob saw a future for a niche publication. He gave me the job on the spot and I went back home and did a dummy edition. I did a feature on one of my friend Dave Muxlow’s mates who used to round up pigs on his bike.”
That pre-production issue also contained a Robert Bentham test of the ’77 KX250, Eric Kitchen’s shots from the Cleveland Trial and a workshop feature on servicing Montesa forks.
“It was a newspaper and it needed an editor with newspaper experience. I used to do everything. Write it, lay it out, organise it. It was a huge effort for such a small outfit. That first week me and Cloughie loaded the wagon [with the papers].”
As well as Bill, the launch team comprised photographer Dave Dewhurst and Pete Kelly, a former editor of Motor Cycle.
“Dave was a bloody good photographer and a good rider as well. He knew a lot about the sport and had a lot of contacts. We got Pete Kelly for a time – he was a great journalist – but he didn’t stay long.
“To tell the truth we were as green as grass in those days but the paper swiftly caught on, thanks mainly to the efforts of club enthusiasts who started to see their names in a national newspaper for the first time.”
After a few weeks Mannix Devlin – who’d been lodging with us in Saltburn while studying at Teesside Polytechnic – came on board and over the years Bill recruited a string of journalists including Mike Rapley, Mike Greenough, John Dickinson and Pete Plummer. One of his favourite ‘finds’ was Alan Butler – “I saved him from borstal” he used to joke – who he took on as a teenager and to this day still plays a vital role in producing TMX.
“TMX was built on the premise that the people who worked for it all rode, just like our readers. ‘We ride it and we write it’. At one stage we had 10 riding staffers, most with company bikes. Great days indeed…”
Bill was sometimes bad-tempered, often stressed and rarely diplomatic but he had the heart of a lion and TMX gave him an amazing platform. There was no internet, no social media, back in the day and most people didn’t know what had happened at the weekend until the following Friday but he didn’t abuse his position. It was the opposite. He knew the power of his pen and he was always on the side of the underdog.
“Smack ’em in the face as hard as you can, kid,” was his advice on dealing with bullies and he practised what he preached in his personal and professional life.
A man no less than Bill Brown credits Bill as being pivotal in creating a UK scene that was the envy of the world. Certainly, a weekly newspaper dedicated to off-road bikes was something the huge markets of the USA and Far East didn’t have but desperately wanted and then there was the Dirt Bike Show that he was instrumental in launching.
Bill was a man who was never afraid to hit 90mph in a dog of an old Renault with a Majesty Yam and a TLR Honda bouncing about behind him on a two-bike trailer. That’s how I’ll remember him.
We’ve been inundated by a ton of heart-felt messages – from weekend warriors to multiple world champions. He never truly knew how well regarded he was so his real legacy should be of a very modest man who – when it mattered most – was never afraid to roll up his sleeves and swing a few bombs.
Bill’s survived by his wife, Sheila, daughters Kary and Victoria, son Sean and granddaughters Julia, Hazel and Polly. We’ll all miss him.
Social distancing makes funeral arrangements tricky so we’re planning on launching him out to sea on a burning boat. Best vantage point is the Lune Aqueduct (all you sat-navvers set your device to LA1 2TJ).
Seriously, because of COVID restrictions Bill’s funeral is going to be restricted in numbers but once this shitstorm blows over there will be a mighty, mighty wake. It could even result in more fatalities. Whether you’re a three-time world champ or once won a second-class award at a Bolton Novex trial, we’d love to see you there…