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Charles Sgonina and the worlds first Double knocker engine.
– reprinted from the VMCC Magazine April and May 1968


“Charles Sgonina, Engineer, Cardiff: - Sgonina, who is only 22 years old, has in the comparatively short time in which he has competed in speed events won over fifty awards. He was third in the French Grand Prix of 1921, and holds the Margam Cup for fastest time in a Welsh event. The sidecar record for Catsash Hill also stands to his credit. On the TT course, Sgonina has distinguished himself as an intrepid but calculating speedman. Present mounts: - Sgonina Special, AJS, and Verus”

So reads a brief biography from the columns of a well-known motoring Journal dated March 1923.

Nowadays, Charlie is continuing in the engineering trade in Cardiff. My first encounter with him was several years ago when I required a gear and exhaust cam to be made for my Clement Garrard engine.

Charlie is a person who does not talk much about the twenties, when he rode in many International events, and it was a few years after my first encounter with him that he did chat on the Vintage era.

He bought his first motorcycle in 1918, a belt driven 4hp Triumph. His next machine was an Enfield, which gave him his first taste of chain drive. Next a BRS Norton, belt drive and with a certificate that it had lapped Brooklands at 70 mph.

About this time, Charlie decided to enter the world of Motorcycle competitions, and so he converted the engine of his Norton to OHV, using a steel cylinder with detachable ports.

He raced the bike at the Weston Speed Trials and won a few events, then at Pendine, then at Style Kop, B’ham. He was up against Graham Walker in his last race meeting, in the novice class, and managed to beat Graham. At this meeting Charlie and Graham Walker formed a long and lasting friendship. Even in the late forties, Charlie wrote several articles for Graham who was the editor of the “Green Un”.

However the engine in the Norton had a short life, the piston cracked around the gudgeon pin, then Bang. Only the cam wheels being salvageable after this happening.

By now the speed bug had really got a hold, so work was started so work was started on another engine. Norton’s were persuaded to part with one of their actual TT frames and gearboxes.

This engine was not really as good as the previous one, but with many alterations did eventually get a move on. The bike performed in quite a number of events with moderate success. As Charlie once said: - “About this time I started to alter valve timings and cam design and found out what a lot of study must be put in on this subject, as to make a cam that looks good is silly. Anyone thinking of making new cams must first consider valve gear reciprocating weight, strength of valve springs permissible, and from this work out what kind of constant acceleration cam would be suitable. I always tried to fill the cylinder as full as possible at fairly high engine revs, and run on a compression ratio to suit the hottest plugs available, which meant that I was running on a lower compression ratio than many and getting more power.” Anyway, Charlie removed the engine from the Norton and put it into a frame that he had built.

The next alteration was to put on an overhead camshaft driven by chain, which caused a considerable stir. Quite a number of different chain drives were tried, as the thrashing of the chain at certain engine revs was most disconcerting. The best type of chain drive was to drive to the mag and then on to the camshaft with a separate chain. Eventually a vertical bevel gear drive was fitted, this cleaned up the appearance but did not increase the speed. There were plenty of troubles with pistons and head joints, and on one occasion the con-rod broke just below the small end. On the other hand there was little trouble with the valves, using tungsten steel, heat-treated. Although Charlie ran on alcohol fuel in the TT and other events when riding for Triumph, he always used Petrol Benzole mixture for his own machines, which he used for pleasure as well as racing and always rode them to events under their own power, but was not always lucky enough to be able to ride them home. Also, at the time alcohol fuel was about 15/- a gallon and was difficult to obtain. Towards the end of this engine’s life Charlie tried blowing it, but found that this was to be a disappointment and after having a few fires at speed the project was dropped. You can be assured that the flame coming from a blower will beat any brazing lamp.
Next, Charlie got fixed up with Triumphs to ride one of their new OHV 4 valve “Riccys” in the 1921 TT. Charlie is seen in the white jumper with the rest of the Triumph factory works team in this photograph. Left to right - Charlie Sgonina, Freddie Edmond, George Shemans and Al Pattinson.

Charlie went to the island full of hopes for the races but after his first practice lap realised that he would have to halve his time to be in the running. One lesson learnt during practice was never to let his eyes wander from the road. Seeing some friends waving to him he took his eyes off the road for a fraction of a second and found himself riding on the pavement. Quite a shock, and he had his leg pulled, with one of the papers calling him the ‘Pavement Artist’. He was also described in the press as “a Welshman with an Italian name, a sunny smile, and a mop of fair hair”. Charlie was third to start, riding behind Howard Davies on the little 2.75hp Ay-Jay, who was to be the winner of the event. Charlie reckoned that if he could keep Howard in sight then he would do all right. Despite the minute interval between starters you could see the chap in front out on the mountain circuit. 

At the end of the first lap, Charlie was lying seventh on corrected time. But the Riccy, which was performing well, decided to drop a valve, halfway through the next lap. The photo on the left was taken at Ramsey hairpin - no tarmac in those days.
Freddie Edmond set up a new lap record at 56.04mph, and finished 7th, whilst George Shemans brought one of the other Ricardos home in 16th Place. Al Pattinson, on the fourth Riccy, retired before the end of the race.

After Charlie’s TT attempt he took the Triumph over to France for the French Grand Prix, in which he finished third in 3hrs. 24 mins., 58 secs., at an average speed of 56.96 m.p.h. Unlike the TT you could practice at any old time and they had great fun going flat out through a bunch of chickens – but French chickens know how to look after themselves. One incident that Charlie recalls is going round with Freddie Edmond who was one of the Triumph team. They were riding abreast at 70 m.p.h. when they saw a cloud of dust ahead, about half way through it Charlie noticed a steam-roller, and wondering what had happened to Freddie, pulled up. Freddie also pulled up and said, “that was a close one, I heard my clutch lever go click against the back wheel of that steam-roller”.

The race started and Charlie eased the Riccy on gently at first then went practically flat out, stopping half way to fill up with petrol and oil. He was troubled by the Calcium Chloride that the organisers had put on the road to keep the dust down, which, when he swallowed gave him a sore throat. However he finished third and was able to gargle with champagne. His mechanic stripped the engine for measurement and as they had a huge case of champagne was unable to put it back together again.

Next the Belgian Grand Prix, but after serious tyre trouble and that valve again, the Riccy was forced to retire. Back to Britain and the 500 miler at Brooklands. Charlie had not been on the track before; it was quite an experience and great fun. During the race Fred Dixon burst a tyre right in front of Charlie’s mount travelling at about 80 m.p.h., he rolled over and over and lost a lot of clothing. Charlie remembers thinking at the time that Freddie would not be riding for quite a while. But he was tough and back in the race almost immediately. Charlie stayed on at Brooklands for a few days to try out the Triumph in comfort but dogged with trouble he had to leave the machine in the hands of Frank Halford to prepare before Charlie had a go at the Catsash Hill Climb. Frank Halford made a fine job of preparing the Riccy and at the hill climb Charlie managed to do some good. When Charlie returned the Triumph to Frank Halford he promptly broke the hour record at Brooklands with it.

At Catsash Charlie knew that if it went well he could get both fastest solo and sidecar times. But unfortunately it turned out wet, the road being muddy, so it was decided to leave the sidecar gear ratio for the first run. George Dance, on the works Sunbeam, went up first, then came Charlie’s turn, with terrific wheel spin for some distance and on to the finish regretting that he had not put on the solo gear. He shut off on the line and started braking but was not slowing down quickly enough to pull up in the distance allowed and he knew that he couldn’t brake harder as his back wheel was locking. The T bend at the end of the straight, that might be taken at about 20 was close, and the bike was still travelling at 60. He decided to turn right and hoped to slide around but although Charlie put the bike over on to the inner footrest it just slid towards the hedge and bump, he was on top of the handlebars with his legs under him. George Dance was one of the first to help Charlie up and said that he went to the left and found it much softer. Charlie wasn’t feeling too good and knew that he was hurt internally. So, after a little rest, saw that the bike was not damaged and decided to ride only in the sidecar classes, all of which he won and put up the fastest sidecar time. Dance rode again in the solos and went straight through the hedge and was taken to hospital.

The fastest Charlie ever travelled was at Pendine. In a one-mile sprint race he was up against Dance and his formidable Sunbeam. At the word “Go” Dance gained three feet and Charlie managed to gain on him at the rate of 2 foot 9 inches per mile. In fact, when they stopped Dance said, “You just managed it”, but was contradicted by Charlie saying “You had it by three inches”. In talking after the event Dance said that he knew that his machine would do 95 any day of the week.

The last engine that Charlie made was a 90-degree inclined O.H.V. with twin camshafts with vertical bevel drive; a steel cylinder and a silicone alloy die cast piston. This was Charlie’s first attempt at die-casting and he made at least six before making a really good one. The pattern for the cylinder head was quite a difficult piece of work and some beautiful castings were turned out. Charlie was rather surprised at the strength of the valve springs required to prevent valve float, as the reciprocating weight was kept to a minimum as only light thimbles were used between the valves and cams. This engine was never fully developed, but seemed to have great possibilities and even in this state was better than any of Charlie’s previous efforts, being reliable and speedy and with slight alterations would have been ideal to run on alcohol fuel. It was road tested early one morning down Allensbank Road in Cardiff and reached 86 m.p.h. Unfortunately Charlie broke his arm when practising on a grass track.

What with this, the ban being put on motor racing on public roads and the trade depression, Charlie had no encouragement to continue. But once the speed bug bites, you never seem to give it up, even in the sixties Charlie used to own and drive the Aston Martin that came third in the Le Mans 24 hours in 1959, and he handled it well on the “local” track at Llandow. Charlie used to own the 1914 TT Humber car owned subsequently by Kenneth Neve. He used to trailer it around the country towing with his 1913 Brescia Zust, so there are many more stories in the world of four wheelers to be told.


The Sgonina Special - mid 1920's


The Sgonina Special when it was owned by Felix Burke in Cheltenham – early sixties – note that it’s fitted with wired on tyres.


The bike today – fully restored and in a museum collection in bavaria,germany

BP