Brothers Derek and Don Rickman found success ran in their blood as motocross racers in 1960s England. After tasting victory on the track, the Rickmans began designing and building their own motorcycle frames. Soon their distinctive designs allowed them to expand their business to include street machines and fairing production. Rickman-framed sportbikes, especially popular in America, were influential and helped guide the direction manufacturers took in design improvements of their own machines in the 1970s and into the ‘80s.
Derek, born in 1933, is older than Don by two years. Their father raced in speedway motorcycle competition and the Rickman boys were influenced heavily by his involvement in the sport. Unfortunately, their father died at an early age and Derek and Don took responsibility for the family’s garage from an early age. Growing up in that business, the brothers developed a keen sense of all things mechanical, and that would prove to guide them in the direction of motorcycle design and building.
“We started entering motorcycle competition in the late 1940s,” Derek Rickman said. “At first we got into trials and later into scrambles and motocross.”
The Rickmans attained success in motocross as competitors. They both represented Britain in the 1960s in Motocross des Nations. In 1963 and ’64, they had the honor of being on the team together. Both won numerous national and international motocross races.
During the 1950s and ‘60s, many motocross riders competed on custom frames, especially the Swedes.
“We realized if we were going to get anywhere in the international sport we were going to have to have lighter machines,” Derek said. “We built our own frames and they turned out to be very successful.”
In the 1950s, the Rickmans dabbled in modifying standard BSA motorcycles. They dubbed these machines Metisse – a Gallic expression for a mongrel. The modifications became more and more extensive until in 1960, they produced their first frame and christened the complete motorcycle the Mark 3, which utilized either a Triumph or Matchless engine.
“We developed the motorcycles every weekend by racing them,” said Don Rickman. “We hit upon success straightaway. We started with a clean sheet and developed large-diameter frame tubing so we could carry the oil in the frame. Plenty of room around the carburetor so we could have big air filters. We used high-quality tube so we had a much lighter machine.”
The Rickman motocross bikes became highly prized and the bulk of them were shipped to America to supply the burgeoning sport of motocross in the 1960s and ‘70s. Rickman machines were 30 to 40 pounds lighter than the standard versions. The bikes were also beautiful to look at, with striking, nickel-plated, high-quality, large-diameter Reynolds 531 tubing. They also were compact and eliminated the need for an oil case by the ingenious method of carrying the engine oil inside the frame itself. That also served another purpose of cooling the oil.
“We wanted to build a machine that was not only engineered well, but one that also looked good,” said Don. “With a nickel-plated machine and good fiberglass you could really make a motorcycle that looked nice.”
BSA in America came to the Rickmans and commissioned them to build 125 and 250cc motocross bikes. They found a 250 Montesa engine they could buy and a 125 Zundapp. They produced prototypes and BSA America decided to import them. At one point, Rickman was producing nearly 4,000 bikes a year that went mainly to America.
When the British motorcycle industry went bust, the Rickmans found themselves standing as the biggest motorcycle producer in England.
“That was quite amazing,” Derek said. “Especially for two brothers who just started tinkering around in our workshop in the 1950s.”
Throughout the early years, Rickman built only motocross and off-road machines. At one point, a road racing sponsor told the brothers that they were so successful building off-road bikes, he wondered why they hadn’t tried producing road racers.
With that, the Rickmans went to work and produced their first road racing frame, designed to use a Matchless engine. Those bikes, too, saw immediate success and the company turned more and more of its attention to building road bikes.
That part of the business really took off in the late-1960s when the Japanese companies began producing the big multi-cylinder motorcycles such as the Honda CB750 and Kawasaki’s Z1.
“The Japanese produced very good engines, but they put much less attention into their chassis,” Derek explained. “We developed our own frames to accept those new four-cylinder engines. Our kits handled very well as compared to the production models. We also produced kits for Triumph engines, as well.”
The Rickman Honda and Kawasaki, with nickel-plated frames, powerful disc brakes and gorgeous Rickman-made fiberglass fairings, were some of the most beautiful and highly desirable motorcycles of the mid-1970s. The machines were quite expensive, but gave their riders a feeling of exclusivity. American motorcycle magazines raved about the handling and designs of Rickman machines.
Rickmans developed a loyal following and the company earned the Queen’s Award for Industry. At its height, Rickman employed 130 workers at its shop in New Milton.
The Rickmans' work was not confined to motorcycle chassis. They also did extensive engine design. Special eight-valve cylinder heads they developed for Triumph engines, and produced by Weslake, upped the power from 45 to 60 horsepower. Police departments took notice of these powerful engines and Rickman began producing police motorcycles utilizing the Rickman-designed Triumph motors.
“The police quite liked having motorcycles with considerably more power than the bikes the average lad could buy,” Derek said with a laugh.
The Rickmans were working towards producing its own engine in conjunction with Weslake. Unfortunately Weslake suffered financial difficulties and the project never came to completion.
Most Rickmans were street-going motorcycles, but many ended up becoming road racers. The Rickman road racers, like the motocross bikes, found great success in competition. A Rickman Triumph ridden by Alan Barnett finished second at the Isle of Man in 1969.
The Japanese makers took notice of the success of Rickman and sent engineers to England to survey the company.
“We had a good relationship with these companies so we accepted them into our factory many times,” Don said. “We knew that they would eventually copy many of our concepts, but you really couldn’t stop them. They could buy bikes and take them apart, so there wasn’t much you could do.”
Eventually, the market changed for Rickman. First, the Japanese vastly improved their motocross machines by adapting many of the concepts the Rickmans pioneered. And through the 1980s, they also greatly improved the chassis on their sport bikes.
“We had to keep moving and shift our focus as the Japanese improved their machines,” Derek said. “We began producing accessories such as carriers, safety bars and fairings.”
For a time, Rickman made all the accessories for Honda Britain.
Eventually, Rickman diversified and the company produced garden furniture, hospital beds and later kit cars using Ford engines. The Rickman brothers sold their company in the mid-1980s.
Later, original Rickman motorcycles came to be in great demand, so much so that by the 2000s Rickman replicas were being made by three different companies. One interesting model is the Steve McQueen replica Rickman. McQueen was one of Rickman’s biggest fans and visited the factory when he was at the height of popularity as a movie star.