The ultimate moto icon: Sammy Miller
BUILT TO LAST
PETER HOWARTH TALKS WITH MOTORCYCLING LEGEND SAMMY MILLER.
‘In 1954, I entered the Scottish Six Days Trial. I wrote to Belstaff and they made a suit for me to wear. I won the Ben Nevis trophy wearing it in that competition. At another Scottish Six Days event it rained five days of the six – I was the only dry rider out in the field. I wore Belstaff all my career.'
Now 86 and still riding in Belstaff, Sammy Miller is five-times winner of the challenging Scottish Six Days Trial. All told, he has won the best part of 1,500 motorcycle trials, and was twice European Trials Champion, as well as Irish Motocross Champion. To put it plainly, Sammy Miller is a motorcycling legend.
An Ulsterman and an MBE, Miller began racing in 1953. He still competes – and wins – today. Even when he's not in the saddle he’s never far from it, running the Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum in New Milton, Hampshire. Home to one of the finest collections of fully restored motorcycles in the world, with over 450 exhibits that include factory racers and unusual prototypes. Miller was British Trials Champion 11 times in a row, a record which has never been bettered. He also won nine gold medals in the extraordinarily tough International Six Days Trial between 1959 and 1970. This race – the ISDT, as it was known – has now been renamed the International Six Days Enduro, and is famous for being a competition in which riders have to perform their own repairs. The ISDT is a challenging annual endurance motorcycle race that requires off-road skill, something Miller knows all about.
'Road racing is all static, the markers and the corners are the same,' he explains. 'In off-road racing everything changes instantly, with the mud and dirt and stones and rivers. You have to be prepared for the unexpected. I always preferred that, it's forever different.' Does off-road require more skill, then? 'No question,' he says. 'You’d get many all-rounders and road racers who couldn't cope at all with off-road.'
It was at the ISDT in East Germany in 1964 that Miller, on the British team, found himself competing against an American squad which contained a familiar face: none other than Hollywood's king of cool, Steve McQueen. The screen legend famously loved his motorbikes, and McQueen competed for his country in '64.
Sammy Miller remembers practising with McQueen. 'He was a nice guy, good craíc, good fun'. But the gold medal eluded McQueen – that honour was reserved for one of his teammates, thanks in part to Sammy himself.
'There was a guy in the US team called Dave Ekins,' says Miller. 'We raced in pairs. The American team told him, stay behind Sammy Miller for six days and you will have a gold medal. The crowds called us Miller and his shadow,’ Sammy laughs. Ekins stuck to Miller as instructed and went back with the only gold medal for the US team.
Sammy Miller won gold too – wearing Belstaff.
Peter Howarth is executive editor of Brummell.