OBITUARY: Arthur “Archie” Wilkinson

Words by Joe McLaughlin

Archie Wilkinson, who has died aged 84, will leave an indelible and never to be extinguished legacy to the sport of Cycle Speedway, to which he royally served for close on 60 years.

His death was announced to the sport last weekend by Jimmy Varnish, one of its greatest ever champions, but it is through his frame and wheel building business, entitled simply `Archie Wilkinson` that his name will live on to grace tracks worldwide for years to come.

But it will be the man himself that Cycle Speedway followers will most remember. With his homely Brummie accent, welcoming smile and kindness to all, Archie Wilkinson generated enormous warmth and affection with all those that were fortunate to meet this kindly man.

Archie`s contribution via his `Archie Wilkinson` business literally kept racing and the sport going for long periods in the past few decades. In such a niche sport, with a worldwide market just in the hundreds, together with its need for custom made frames and components such as handlebars and pedals, it was Archie that ensured racing continued by providing a fantastic array of equipment.

His investment in the sport was for the love of it. The success of the original `Wilkinson Wheels` company, exporting cycle wheels throughout the world, ensured that Archie had the means and the significant upfront investment available to fund his love of Cycle Speedway by way of underwriting the major costs to secure procurement.

He often had to order hundreds of a particular component to make them cost effective to the working-class, blue-collar Cycle Speedway demographic. In so doing, each time he tied up thousands of pounds of his company finances, and with stock that sometimes remained unsold for many months, and in some cases, years.

Archie was born in 1936 and was forever proud of his Birmingham roots. He was educated at Hamstead Infant & Junior School and Spon Lane School. He started work the very next day after leaving school and was soon showing the hard work ethos that was to ultimately lead to his own highly successful business.

Cycle Speedway, then known as the `Skid Kids` sport, boomed after the war years. Every locality seemed to have a team. Archie was soon attracted and rode with distinction for several teams, including Hagley Comets, Hamstead Hammers and his cherished Kingstanding Monarchs.

It was during his time racing for Hagley Comets that Archie enjoyed his greatest ontrack success. In the 1959 National Individual Final, Archie just missed out on a podium finish, finishing in fourth place.

John Varnish, father of Jimmy Varnish, finished second in the 1959 final and Archie and John became lifelong friends, together with other greats of that era, such as John Dockerill, Pete Blackwell and John Ward and many others.

Like many in the sports formulative years, Archie transferred to motor Speedway and was to become an accomplished rider for Cradley Heath Heathens, Crayford Highwaymen and for his beloved local team, the Birmingham Brummies.

One of his most eminent performances was in 1968, racing for Cradley Heath at the then top-rated Newcastle Diamonds. Archie scored a paid 9 points – against a Newcastle side that included Speedway legends Ivan Mauger and Ole Olsen!

When Archie joined the Birmingham revival in 1971 it was a real homecoming. He lived just a couple of miles away from the Perry Barr track and helped the Brummies to a very successful reopening season that saw huge crowds again thronging the terraces watching Speedway in Britain’s second city.

It was in 1974 that Wilkinson Wheels was born. Archie began building wheels for the cycle trade from his garage. No machines, just Archie and his sheer hard work. Business soon took off and the business went from success to success.

I do remember, often painfully recalling my many crashes in my early days, frequent visits to Archie`s garage to get my front wheel repaired after my latest `big dive` had ended in dust, shale and tears!

After moving into its own premises, Archie expanded the business to include frame building and later, Cycle Speedway parts and accessories. In 1980, then aged 20 years, Archie`s son Karl, universally liked and respected in the sport like his father, joined the business.

It was around this time that after visiting his sister Pamela in America, Archie fell in love with the States and soon moved there. But the lure of his Brummie heritage was just too strong and Archie eventually returned to the UK, although he continued to holiday and visit Pamela in America on a regular basis.

One of the real joys of Cycle Speedway people over the years, was a `conducted` tour of the Wilkinson Wheels factory, directed by the great man himself. Here was a factory, a real factory, in Great Britain that actually made things. It was a real throwback to the golden days of British manufacturing.

As one travelled the building, machines roared, wheels were stacked high as far as one could see and workers raced to complete the next order, often to Europe and further afield. This was real industry batting for Britain.

Archie was immensely proud of his factory. And, so he should have been, for here was the original working class boy story made good. From his garage at home – to a substantial state of the art factory employing 40 people at its height.

His cycle industry business proved enjoyable in many ways for Archie. He loved being a member of the `Pickwick Bicycle Club` and days out in London for club social events. Likewise, Archie was spellbound by the absolute beauty of Lake Constance, in Germany, where he would stay with Jean, Karl and family members whilst visiting trade fairs nearby.

Archie supported many riders over the years, such as Lee Aris, Martin Hepworth, Martin Gale, Jimmy Varnish and Lewis Osbourne, amongst others. In addition, there will be hundreds of Cycle Speedway riders over the years, past and present, who will have been the recipient of his always generous help and advice.

He was always a big supporter to all the clubs by way of advertising and sponsorship to major events. He always offered substantial discounts to new or reviving clubs to help them on their way.

It was indeed fitting that British Cycling awarded him the Wilkinson Sword of Merit in 2012, for services to the sport. Inwardly Archie was a shy man, and, this was demonstrated at the Award Ceremony, when son Karl gave the speech of Acceptance and Thanks.

Returning to motor Speedway, Archie was overjoyed when the Birmingham Brummies returned in 2007. He soon become a regular at meetings, and, generous as ever with his time, would happily pose for pictures and chat endlessly to supporters who had remembered him from his 1970s racing days.

In later years, right up to 2019, pre Covid, Archie would attend the Brummies. He loved the Birmingham Brummies. He would nestle on the terraces just past the starting line, chatting away to his great friends Paul Timms and John Heard, and many supporters of old. It will, indeed, be a heart-breaking experience the next time I go to Perry Barr to see an empty space next to Paul and John.

When the news broke of his death, hundreds of people, on one platform alone, sent messages of condolences and support to his family. This illustrated how universally popular Archie was.

Away from social media, The Wilkinson family have received scores of heartfelt tributes from the Cycle Speedway world, which Karl and the family are very thankful and appreciative of.

In remembering his father, Karl said to me: “My Dad was a very generous man and lived a wonderful life, and I was blessed to be his son”.

All of the fore-going chronicles a life so rich in achievement on so many levels. But to many reading this in the Cycle Speedway world, it must be placed on record herewith that Archie Wilkinson will go down in history as one of its finest ever servants.

He was `our` Archie. A man of great decency. Respected by all that met him. A man that via his sheer hard work provided the means for Cycle Speedway to, literally, to keep racing. We shall be forever thankful and always remember him.

It can be, truly, depicted here that in Archie, Cycle Speedway had its very own Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Bobby Robson and Jackie Charlton – all rolled into one. So loved was he by everyone in Cycle Speedway.

May He Rest in The Peace of Our Lord.

Archie is survived by wife Jean, son Karl and daughter Julie, and four grandchildren and one great grandchild.

His funeral will on Thursday 16 th September 2021, 12.15pm at Sandwell Valley Crematorium, Newton Road, West Bromwich, B71 3SX, nearby to where Archie lived and worked for almost all of his life, and afterwards at Great Barr Golf Club, 75 Chapel Lane, Birmingham, B43 7BA.

*Arthur (Archie) Wilkinson, Cycle Speedway frame and wheel builder extraordinaire. Born 26 th December 1936. Died 20th August 2021.