Bike racer, hellraiser and gearbox builder extraordinaire - Bruce Verson.
Twenty years ago Durban motorcycle racer Bruce Verdon was well known as a true motorsport character in the classic hellraising tradition. He was a very successful short-circuit motorcycle competitor on a Husqvarna, and a regular winner in Durban’s popular hill climbs on closed off public roads, usually riding an ancient Norton Commando. The lanky mechanical boffin was an even more accomplished performer at the prize-giving functions, and some of his extraordinary antics are still spoken of in hushed tones today around Pinetown, where he lived and ran his small engineering business. His living quarters at one time consisted of a mezzanine floor above his factory-unit workshop, furnished with a double bed, a fridge full of beer and piles of motorcycle magazines.
When I visited him there one morning I found that all business activities had been suspended while Bruce sent his staff shopping, then fabricated a contraption consisting of a long pole with a siren on top, wired to the workshop power supply. In response to the obvious question, Bruce told me that the woman in the office on the floor above his premises had complained about the noise coming from his workshop, so he was about to show her what a real noise was. I just had to stick around. The siren edged upwards on its pole until it was just half a metre or so from the back of the oblivious woman’s head as she sat at her desk, and all hell broke loose when Bruce flicked the switch. The badly-frazzled woman nearly went through the roof and when she poked her head out of the window, I took the picture.
In the late ‘90s Bruce packed up his workshop and set off to seek greener pastures first in the UK, and then the Antipodes. Upon landing in New Zealand a year or so after he left Pinetown, he took a job for a short while and then quit to set up shop on his own once again. His workmanship in South Africa was known to be exemplary and he had a good name, but nobody in New Zealand knew or cared about that, so things were slow in getting off the ground. “I’d taken my machinery from Pinetown, which reduced set-up costs, but I was still very much an outsider. That changed when a guy from Hamilton who was building a replica 1950’s Matchless G45 racebike asked me whether I could build him a five-speed gearbox, and that was the spark that got me going.” During his apprenticeship with the South African Railways & Harbours in the ‘70s Bruce had been exposed to foundry and blacksmith work and in his Pinetown racing days he’d machined various gearbox components to change the internal ratios of his old Norton’s transmission, so he knew enough about what was required to take the job on. “Lots of people can make gears and shafts and things, but not many can make an entire gearbox that’s better than original,” he says. “I knew it was critical to make the patterns properly and get good castings made. I wasn’t daunted because I knew I could do it.”
“In 2005 I did everything myself, making one or two bike gearboxes a month, but when business suddenly took off I employed staff and built up production to 50 a year. I designed all of my own four, five and six-speed boxes without looking inside any of the other manufacturers’ products because I didn’t want to be influenced by their train of thought,” he adds. “There’s a certain set of problems that we all face and it’s all about how you handle them. Obviously when you design each component you have to do so with the manufacturing process in mind. I’ve concentrated on keeping things simple and making my gearboxes modular with shared components.” Bruce built his first prototype and in its first outing, at a major event at Phillip Island in Australia, his happy customer took it to a pole position, followed by two race wins and a lap record. Within a month Bruce had orders for 30 more racing gearboxes and he’s never looked back since. His company, Trans Tasman Industries Limited, has manufactured around 800 ultra-robust four, five and six-speed motorcycle gearboxes and sold them mainly in the UK and Europe.
“Once I had money behind me I decided to start developing sequential gearboxes for racing cars, and built a prototype that we gave to a local racer for a year,” Bruce says. “We followed its progress and made a few small changes and then redesigned it completely before going into production. We sold our first ten in 2009 and have moved about 150 to date, with orders increasing all the time.” All entrants in the very popular NZ V8 road racing series now use TT Industries six-speed manual transmissions.
As business picked up Bruce rekindled his passion for motorcycle circuit racing and started competing on classic racebikes in Australia and New Zealand, which helped keep his blood pressure down and gearbox sales up. He’s since raced his 500cc Manx Norton and 750cc BSA Rocket 3 in the USA and at the Isle of Man Classic TT, with his best result being two fifth places at Daytona in 2011. Just two places ahead of him in both heats was 1991 and ’92 World Superbike Champion Doug Polen, while multiple American national champion Dave Roper finished behind him in sixth both times.