Born in Liverpool on September 1, 1928, the most memorable, enduring image of Reg Armstrong is of him crossing the finishing line to win the 1952 Senior TT, just as his Norton’s primary chain snapped, falling like a dead snake onto the tarmac. It was his only TT win, but part of an interesting career and life.
Though he was born in England, Armstrong’s parents were Irish and returned to Dublin in the early 1930s, where his father, Fred, established a motor factoring business. Reg’s older cousin Harry Lindsay taught him to ride a motorcycle, the pair of them having aged 16H Nortons, when they were around 15. During the Second World War the cousins volunteered for patrol duties and such, keeping their (under) ages quiet!
As peace returned, Reg started his competition career, originally in trials, riding an Ariel. An advert in a local newspaper for a prewar 350cc Norton racer caught his eye, was duly acquired, and he made his race debut at Bangor Castle in Northern Ireland. It should be noted that TT great Stanley Woods was a family friend, so it’s no surprise that racing was on the agenda.
Enjoying modest success, Armstrong was keen to ride in the 1946 Manx GP, but his 18th birthday was on the day of the Junior race – and one had to be 18 to secure the required licence. Though he could’ve raced, he wouldn’t be allowed to practice, so he went to the Isle of Man as a spectator, as well as getting to know his way around the Island.
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He was back in the Isle of Man for the 1947 TT, as part of the Irish clique (Woods, Artie Bell and Ernie Lyons) and although Armstrong wasn’t racing, he put in many laps of the track on road machines, which would prove useful for when he returned later in the year for the Manx GP. By now, his father had provided the funds for a 350cc Manx Norton, which was campaigned with some success at home, and for the Manx GP he had borrowed a 500cc engine from Artie Bell to race it in the Senior. He’d also a 250cc Excelsior Manxman for the Lightweight – the exhaust came adrift but he still finished fifth. However, the race was marred by tragedy when young Dubliner Benjy Russell, on Stanley Wood’s Guzzi, was killed – grief stricken Armstrong scratched his Senior entry.
But Armstrong wasn’t going to give up and the weekend after won the Irish 350cc championship. There was evidently talent there (in the 1948 Manx he was lying third in the Junior, having made fastest lap, when he retired a 7R – he came fourth in the Senior on a GP Triumph stuck in top gear) but he was in the fortunate position of being of ‘independent means’ (his father’s business was very successful) meaning he didn’t have to hold down a ‘regular’ job and wasn’t looking for big contracts and paydays. An attractive proposition for factories…
So much so that AMC provided him with a works AJS Porcupine for a meeting at Ansty – he finished fourth. Riding ‘within himself’ (Armstrong was clearly a calculating man) he impressed sufficiently to secure a 1949 works contract, season’s highlights included fifth and seventh place finishes in the Junior and Senior TTs, on the same AJS 7R, while the factory gave him a Porcupine for the 1949 Italian GP – he came sixth.
A late-season crash at Silverstone (his only notable high-speed get-off) cost him all his front teeth, while AMC wouldn’t allow him a Porcupine for the 1950 season – so he departed the AMC camp, preferring to ride Nigel Spring’s 350cc Velocette and a 500cc GP Triumph. He also had a couple of rides on a 500cc MV Agusta, though for 1951 he was back at AMC, this time with a Porc’ for 500cc events and a 7R for 350cc races. His best results were second (350cc) and third (500cc) in Switzerland, though he was always there or thereabouts and for 1952 he had works Manx Nortons – despite breaking his leg skiing at Christmas (he’d gone with Stanley Woods). Being of the necessary means he simply stayed in Switzerland recuperating, Norton race chief Joe Craig being none the wiser! A rash of chain breakages (luckily the TT one happened at the right moment!) hindered his world title aspirations (though he did a 350cc/500cc double at the German GP) but he still finished third in the 500cc world crown chase.
For 1953 he signed to Gilera on a lucrative contract for the 500cc class, while he rode works NSUs in the smaller classes – won the 250cc Ulster GP and again in Switzerland. On the 500cc Gilera, he was third in the world championship, won by team-mate Geoff Duke. Armstrong was with Gilera for the next two seasons, too, coming third in the 1955 world championship and winning the Spanish GP. It was in 1955 that he married Rosemary.
He was suspended (as was Duke) from racing for the first half of 1956 after his part in the riders’ strike at the 1955 Dutch TT. His last win came on the 500cc Gilera in the German GP at Solitude and as his competition career wound down, so business was ramping up.
Securing the NSU agency for Ireland, Armstrong was able to add Honda and Opel too. He became a very wealthy man, had two years managing Honda’s racing teams (1962 and 1963) as well as building up his business. He raced cars with modest success in the 1960s, and took up clay pigeon shooting, representing Ireland in the 1978 world championships.
Tragically, Reg was killed in a car crash in County Wicklow in November 1979.