- Photography by Mr Benjamin McMahon
"Right," barks Mr Sammy Miller, the man once known as the "Belfast Bombshell", swinging his leg back down from the 1969 Jawa racing bike that takes pride of place at the entrance to his motorcycle museum and hopping off the podium with the nimbleness of a man a quarter of his age. As the most successful motorcycle trials rider of all time - a man with more than 1,200 wins to his name - the 80-year-old is not used to standing still.
In the flesh he's a slight, sprightly, tightly coiled spring: a jockey's build, made for harnessing horsepower. Much like its equine equivalent, motorcycle trials is a cross-country discipline that's more about the balance required to navigate unforgiving terrain than it is about breakneck speed - although Mr Miller is no stranger to the latter, having seen his fair share of success as a road racer. He flirted with a Grand Prix career for a while, too, scoring an impressive third-place finish in the 1955 Italian Motorcyling Grand Prix. But it was away from the glamour, in the rough-and-ready world of trials, that he truly made his name.
Here, the statistics speak for themselves. Twelve hundred events won: that works out as roughly one a week for 23 years. Of course, in reality, it took him far longer than that. Taking into account the second-place finishes, the Did Not Finishes and everything in between, Mr Miller's prolific, victory-strewn competitive career stretches from the early 1950s all the way up to his last serious win in 2007. For more than half a century he was the man to beat. Looking back doesn't seem to be high on his agenda, though.
There is simply nothing like the feeling of firing an old motor into life... I've been fortunate to experience many highs in my career. But few things come close to that
The word "museum" doesn't quite do justice to the automotive treasure trove that Mr Miller has spent the past 30 years building down on England's sleepy south coast. It doesn't smell like a museum, for a start. A heady aroma of engine oil hangs in the air - a testament to the fact that, unlike in many museums, Mr Miller and his team keep every one of their 400-plus bikes in complete working order. "Keeping them alive", as he calls it, is a labour of love that requires constant attention, and as you wander between the exhibits you begin to get the impression that this is less a museum and more a hobby that has got spectacularly out of hand. Every bike has a story, and as Mr Miller leads us through the museum halls, he stops to recount a few potted histories. There's his famous Ariel HT5 "GOV 132", a bike he developed and on which he won more than 300 trials events; there's a 1953 Norton "Kneeler", which was developed to offer a more aerodynamically favourable riding position but ended up resembling a Cold War-era submarine; there's a replica 1912 Verdel, a relic of a more experimental era that's essentially a glorified bicycle frame with a radial five-cylinder engine bolted onto it; there are Moto Guzzis, BSAs, Sunbeams, Indians, Royal Enfields... there's even a penny farthing bicycle. Every bike has a story, and he knows every single one.
"Well, I've worked on most of them myself," he explains, taking us through a small door at the end of the hall that leads straight into the nerve centre of the whole operation: his workshop. Like any trials veteran, it would appear that riding bikes is far from Mr Miller's only talent - he's just as good at fixing them, too.
"You had to be back in the day," he says, pointing out that "many a good event is won in the workshop". The Northern Irishman learnt the fundamentals of bike maintenance while growing up in the countryside around Belfast during WWII. He remembers picking through the rubble of the Belfast Blitz in 1941, and seeing the wreckage of an American B-17 that crashed into the slopes of Cave Hill a few years later. "It was as if the most advanced technology in the world was just dropping out of the sky," he recalls. He developed a fascination with bikes, and had stripped and rebuilt his first engine by the time he was in his mid-teens - an achievement that he shrugs off nonchalantly, saying "there wasn't much else to do back then".
Immortalised on an oil can by Altamura Concepts
This engineering talent has seen him develop and design various trials bikes throughout his career, working for Ariel, Bultaco and Honda among others, but now his skills are more likely to be put to use in the meticulous restorations that he carries out for the museum and for private clients around the world. It's slow, painstaking work, but as he pulls on his blue work coat and launches into a detailed description of his latest project - a rusty pile of nuts and bolts that has a long way to go before it in any way resembles the gleaming specimens on the other side of the door - you begin to realise why he does it. He explains slowly, carefully cushioning any technical jargon with phrases like "this'll all be double Dutch to you, of course", but as he talks his eyes begin to light up. This is his happy place. "There is simply nothing like the feeling of firing an old motor into life," he says. "I've been fortunate to experience many highs in my career. But few things come close to that."
Mr Miller doesn't appear to be showing any signs of slowing down, and though his serious racing days might be behind him, he refuses to look back. Just before we depart he hands me a newspaper opened to a page advertising Thundersprint, a motorcycle event that he's due to appear at later in the month. "Starring Sammy Miller", reads the advert. Above it sits a picture of the man himself, sat astride the 1969 Jawa that he was photographed on earlier. So he'll be riding, then?
"Oh, absolutely. I'll do a few laps."
Parade laps, though, surely?
"Parade laps - at pace," he corrects. Once a racer, always a racer, it seems.
The Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum is in New Milton, Hampshire, UK sammymiller.co.uk
Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER