Roger Kimbell doesn’t do things by halves.
He rebuilt the first of dozens of motorbikes at 13, built up and then sold a successful construction plant business, learned to fly, built his own plane, and bought a flying school.
Along the way, he found time to construct a Triking three-wheeler, which itself looks ready to take off with the addition of wings and a propellor.
We’ve come to Roger’s rented hangar a few miles outside Kettering, where the Moto Guzzi-powered machine is shadowed by a friend’s Tiger Moth biplane, with his own Robin light aircraft and AutoGyro stationed nearby.
Closest experience to flying
The 76-year-old is clearly a man who likes to experience nature in the raw, and the Triking, a 1920s-style cyclecar created by ex-Lotus draughtsman Tony Divey, is possibly the closest experience to flying without leaving the ground.
A member of Colin Chapman’s inner circle at Hethel, Divey decided to build his own car in the late ‘70s after finding the pre-war Morgan three-wheelers too expensive to buy.
When the car was finished in 1978, Chapman himself, along with Mario Andretti – who drove the Lotus 79 to the F1 title that year – gave it their seal of approval after a test drive.
Like Divey, Roger came to the Triking via the Morgan; unlike him, he did actually own one, a 1936 model that was “a pig to start” with “dreadful brakes”.
When he sold the Morgan to a man who had spotted it on display at a local library art event, he’d already visited the small village of Marlingford, near Norwich, where Divey was building Trikings in his garage.
“The Morgan was a hand start and the crank put your knuckles within about 10mms of the floor,” he says, looking down at his hands in memory of many scrapes.
Heart in your mouth
“It was great fun but you went everywhere with your heart in your mouth. I was looking for the same fun but, shall we say, safer and more convenient.
“I’d already looked at the Triking and thought ‘there’s the answer, a modern one with proper brakes’.”
Roger had read about the car in a magazine, and happened to be in Norwich on business in early 1985.
“Tony took me for a demo run in his original one, which I think he did three or four hundred thousand miles in, and I was enthralled by this thing,” he says.
He also happened to have an engine ready and waiting, having previously paid £900 for a written-off Moto Guzzi Black Prince with an undamaged 949cc air-cooled V-twin engine and final drive.
“The original idea was to put the engine in a boat, but then I met Tony and eventually found enough money to place an order, with staged payments I hasten to add, for a kit,” he says, the components arriving about six months later.
Roger had restored many motorbikes over the years, but building an entire car from scratch was a new experience.
“Suck it and see”
“It was all suck it and see, there were no instructions,” he says. “Just a schematic diagram with a rough idea of what went where.”
Roger’s passion for all things mechanical was sparked by a ride on a BSA Bantam as a 10-year-old.
“We were over at relatives or friends and the son took me round the garden on his BSA,” he says. “And that was it, I was sitting on the tank absolutely enthralled.
“So at 13 I bought an old Velocette in bits, put it together and hammered it round the local fields – the farmer was very generous, particularly after harvest. And it’s gone on from there really, anything mechanical or with an engine.”
As well as the Triking, Roger has ended up with an enviable collection of vintage and classic motorbikes, including a 1926 Scott Squirrel, a 1925 Triumph Model P, a 1929 Puch SGS 250, and a 1952 Moto Guzzi Falcone Sport, his two-wheeled pride and joy.
After leaving school and attending Northamptonshire’s “boot and shoe college”, Roger entered the famous local shoe trade, working initially for Barkers of Earls Barton.
He worked his way up to become rep for the south west of England before leaving to work in his uncle’s construction and plant hire business, driving trucks delivering vibrating rollers all over the country.
Sixteen years later, he left as managing director and set up his own company, Mawsley Machinery, in 1981, selling to a management buyout in 1998 after a heart attack the previous year made him question his work-life balance.
“I decided that with businesses in Northamptonshire, on the Isle of Man and in the west country, all the tearing about, what was the point really?” he says.
“My two key co-directors bought my shares and they’ve just done exactly the same to their two key people 20 years later, which is fantastic.”
Back to 1986, and a garage filled with boxes of bits with labels like “front suspension left” and “front suspension right”, and that single diagram showing how it all went together.
With a demanding job and three children aged between six and 16, most of the work was done in the evenings and at weekends when time allowed.
“It all came together fairly logically, it was just a question and stopping and thinking every now and then instead of blundering ahead,” he says.
The kit, which cost about £3,000, included the chassis, bodywork, windscreen, upholstery, carpets, wiring, dashboard and dials, as well as the two front wheels and tyres and a tonneau cover.
For an extra £20, Divey cut out the holes in the wooden dash to Roger’s specification, leaving him to source a rear wheel, battery, and gearbox, and fit the engine and final drive from the Black Prince.
After three months, the completed vehicle had its first trundle around the village.
“It was just magical; there was a great sense of achievement,” he says, in the kitchen of the farmhouse that’s been home for 40 years.
There was just one issue that Roger couldn’t resolve.
“It was all fine, except that I’d got the tracking out,” he says. “I had no means of getting it accurate, and the toe and the camber baffled me, so I rang Tony and he said ‘bring it up and I’ll sort it’.
“So I drove it up there with the left tyre squealing most of the way and, by the time I got there, there was no tread on it.
“He sorted it all out, and he had a new tyre which I bought off him, and it was a different car from then on. I haven’t touched it since!”
Initially, the Triking was used “at every opportunity”, and Roger’s wife of 52 years, Judith, was a regular passenger, despite finding it “noisy, uncomfortable, difficult to get in and out of and with hot exhausts to burn your legs on”.
“She drove it once, I think, but didn’t really get on with it,” he adds. “It has a sequential gearbox – you push forward for first, and then keep pulling back.”
As well as treasure hunts with the local car club, hillclimbing at Prescott and displaying the car-bike hybrid at the Brackley Festival of Motorcycling, Roger also used the Triking for the odd business trip, not ideal when the heavens open.
“I had a customer who was a bit of a motorcycle enthusiast, he had a Moto Guzzi, and he was dying to see it so I thought ‘well, to keep him sweet I’ll go down in it’,” he remembers.
“It was 80 miles each way, and going there it was really very pleasant, down through the Cotswolds and out to somewhere between Bath and Shepton Mallet.
The heavens opened
“I got a nice order out of it I seem to remember, but coming back I got to about Tetbury and the heavens opened and didn’t stop until I got here.
“I was soaked and cold – the wet just comes over the top of the screen straight down and into your lap. It was summer and I just had a sports jacket and flannels on. I remember I put the tonneau cover over me to try to keep the rain off.
“I just thought ‘what am I doing? This is stupid’.”
Fortunately, the weather played ball on Roger’s visits to the Prescott hillclimbs.
“It was great fun because, despite what everybody thinks of three wheelers, they don’t actually let go, except in the wet when they’re much quicker to let go than an ordinary four-wheeled car would be,” he says. “Luckily it was dry every time I went there.
“It was really more of a crowd pleaser than anything else – I never got out of second gear.”
Roger’s three children, Lucy, Jo, and Charlie, now a petrolhead like his father, all had rides in the car as youngsters.
“A bit eccentric”
“I think my children think I’m perhaps a bit eccentric,” he says. “I remember stopping at a zebra crossing with Jo, my middle daughter, who was about 16 with long blonde hair.
“Two 20-somethings walked across and one of them said ‘look at that dirty old bugger’ and I thought ‘hang on, why assume that?!’”
Charlie, who flies a Gulfstream executive jet for a living, has driven the Triking regularly over the years, and is the most likely to one day take on the car.
“He likes it, and I’d quite like him to take it on, but I wouldn’t be too worried if he didn’t,” says Roger. “It depends if he has the space.”
A couple of years after completing the Triking, Roger embarked on the next big adventure of his life, learning to fly.
“My uncle had an Auster, and I used to sit in the back of this thing as a small boy, so I always loved it and always wanted to do it,” he says. “I actually tried to get into the RAF but I was short-sighted so they said no.”
His new hobby was funded by the sale of a 1911 Triumph motorcycle with a wickerwork sidecar.
“Brian Verrall, probably the best purveyor of vintage and veteran bikes in his day, had been after this Triumph,” he remembers.
“He rang me and said ‘I’ve got a buyer who will buy your Triumph and I can come up and give you £3,500 in cash’, so he did that, picked it up, and paid me what I thought was an awful lot of money.
“On the Monday morning I paid it into the bank, then went to a business call in Wellingborough, and was coming back via Sywell when a Beagle Pup plane came in over the road to land.
‘I can now afford to fly’
“I thought ‘I can now afford to fly’, so I went in straight away. He said ‘what are you doing for the next hour?’ I said I was on the way back to work. ‘Do you want to fly?’ Well that was it, I was hooked.
“I said ‘how much will it cost?’ He said if you pay up front it’s £3,500, so I wrote him a cheque and went straight back to the bank to move it from the deposit to the current account.”
After his soaking in the Triking, Roger opted to fly to long distance business appointments, chartering the flying school’s twin-engined Piper, soon buying it off them and leasing it back when the school ran into financial difficulties.
“That worked well for a while, but it was a very expensive thing to keep and run and eventually they bought it back,” he adds.
Having successfully built his own car, why not build his own plane? For the price of a new car, Roger could get his hands on an American Kitfox aircraft.
“After two-and-a-half years building it, as I watched it take off with the test pilot and his parachute on, there was a feeling of almost tears welling up: God, it can fly,” he says.
‘Horrible to fly’
“Having flown it myself though, I really didn’t like the thing and was glad when it went! It was horrible to fly and felt less than safe.
“It had a two-stroke, twin cylinder engine and there’s always a worry with two-strokes when they’re flat out, what are they going to do next? It wasn’t uncommon for that particular engine to cause trouble.”
Ten years after getting his wings, and with the machinery business sold, Roger was persuaded to buy the entire flying school.
“They decided they wanted to go commercial flying, so asked me if I could help them sell the business,” he explains.
“It was a sprat to catch a mackerel really because I was at a bit of loose end not knowing what I was going to do. He was a jolly good salesman: ‘Oh it runs itself’. It didn’t!”
Roger ran the school until 2008, keeping on the maintenance company for five more years before finally retiring to spend more time with his planes, bikes and automobiles.
These days, the Triking gets far less use than in those first few years, when he put on several thousand of its estimated 20,000 miles (over two speedos).
“I don’t know why, it must be old age, but when you’re hurtling along at 70mph and there’s a truck coming the other way, you think to yourself ‘if I hit that, there’s no protection whatsoever’,” he says.
‘You feel very vulnerable’
“We’re so cosseted in a modern car, that’s the trouble. In the Triking you feel very vulnerable.
“Several times it’s occurred to me that it really isn’t getting enough use, and perhaps I ought to get rid of it, but it only stands me at about £4,000 and I’ve never wanted to sell it. It took so much heartache building it…”
Not that it stands entirely idle, partly thanks to a cluster of Triking owners in the area.
“There are five of us, four Trikings and a guy with a JZR, and we occasionally get together, have a blast out and go and have a decent lunch somewhere,” he says, also taking the car to Stanford Hall, about 20 miles away.
“We now get about eight to 10 Trikings there on Founders Day.”
The car, which Roger says has “terrific, supple suspension but the aerodynamics of a blackboard”, draws smiles and puzzlement in equal measure on the road.
“Most people have no idea what it is, or they think it’s a Morgan,” he says. “They laugh, they smile, they get their phones out and draw alongside clicking away.
“It’s not something one seeks, I certainly don’t, but if it gives pleasure to people then that’s great.”
It’s certainly given Roger plenty of pleasure for more than 30 years, and maybe one day Charlie will keep dad’s home-built car in the family.
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