Belle Vue Ace 1952 - 1963


PETER CRAVEN BELLE VUE & ENGLAND 1952 -1963

Born on the 21st June 1934, Peter had an elder brother, Brian, to look up to and four sisters. He did have a twin brother, who sadly died at an early age. Prior to starting his speedway exploits, Peter’s sporting instincts had taken the path of many other stars, by taking up Cycle Speedway.

The young Craven made his Belle Vue debut, scoring 2 points when Norwich visited on the 17th May 1952. Although some suggest his maiden meeting was one week later, Craven’s first match was on the 17th May. He made a further four league appearances, but could only manage a single point in those meetings. This less than auspicious start, gave little inkling as to the greatness Craven was to achieve. Previously, he had ridden for the Fleetwood Flyers and Liverpool Chads, but seemed to spend more time becoming acquainted with the safety fence.

However, in 1953, having become a regular Aces rider, Peter made rapid strides, scoring 70 race points from 12 matches. At this time, the Army required his services, causing him to miss a few matches. It was not only in Manchester that Craven was becoming a crowd favourite. He was a very popular visitor at the away tracks, where his unique style held the crowds spellbound. Even at this early stage of his racing career, the style that relied on balance had been honed.

The following year, saw Craven take a massive leap, by reaching his first World Championship Final at Wembley. Here he was to meet a rider, also making his debut, who was to become a major rival in the ensuing seasons; he was Ove Fundin. And it was Craven who won this first duel, scoring 3 to Fundin’s 2 points. Peter won his final race, beating no less than Barry Briggs. In the league, Peter’s average increased by almost a point and he was certainly making everyone sit and take notice. He also gained his first full maximum in the win over Harringay in May. If anyone thought that this  season had been good, the next was definitely an eye-opener.

Belle Vue’s inspirational captain, Jack Parker, had retired after the 1954 season, with Aces boss Johnnie Hoskins, deciding to create a team around Craven, Peter Williams, together with the other improving talent, Dick Fisher. Adding to them the already established stars in Ron Johnston, Ken Sharples and Bob Duckworth, it was easy to see why Belle Vue was viewed as serious title challengers to the mighty Wimbledon Dons.  However, it was in the World Championship that Craven really announced his arrival on the big stage. Qualifying in joint top place, gave Peter a chance to better his previous effort, yet nobody was prepared for what was to unfold.  

In his opening race, he again defeated Fundin, with Olle Nygren and fellow Aces rider Ron Johnston, filling in the minor places. A second win followed, before Barry Briggs finished ahead the Liverpudlian in race eleven. Undaunted, Craven emerged for his fourth ride and inflicted defeat on defending champion Ronnie Moore. This left him a point to the good over Briggs, his closest rival. Another dropped point, this time to Wembley rider, Brian Crutcher, left Craven on 13 points and his title hopes in the balance. Barry Briggs, the only rider who could equal his tally, was in the final race of the evening. The tension was almost unbearable for the home crowd, especially the Belle Vue contingent. As the tapes rose, it was that man Ove Fundin who reached the first bend in front of Briggs, but try as he might, Barry could not find a way to pass Ove, the championship was Craven’s. It is hard to imagine whether there has been a more popular win, even his rivals were genuinely pleased by his success. Ronnie Moore, Ove Fundin, and Barry Briggs were all magnanimous in their praise of Craven; testimony to the Liverpudlian’s popularity amongst his greatest rivals. Peter was quick to praise the Belle Vue mechanical team of Harold Gardner and Wilf Lucy. Gardner, at that time, was the mechanic for the entire Aces team.   

His reception on his homecoming to Belle Vue was a warm one indeed. However, as world champion, he was in great demand. He did a whirlwind tour of Scandinavia, with meetings in Sweden and Norway, although the experience of racing over there was a new one for Peter. Still the travelling was not over.

No sooner had he arrived back from one trip, Craven was making preparations for Belle Vue’s ground-breaking trip to Poland. The appearance of the famous Aces from Belle Vue certainly stirred the Polish public to turn out in numbers. A Three-team event was won by the tourists, with Poland second and Austrian side Rennklub coming last. In the club match, Warsaw lost to Belle Vue by 66-42, with Craven leading the way with 16 points.

Being world champion creates pressure in itself, but for Peter, he need not have worried. It was decided that he should be seeded directly to the Wembley showdown, which would prove to be a great lift for him. For once, he could concentrate his efforts on helping his club to try and improve on the previous year’s progress. At the final itself, Peter showed the quality that took him to the title. In his first race, Peter defeated Ronnie Moore and Ove Fundin, with Fundin being a particular favourite to succeed Craven. Disaster struck, when, in his second race, his engine blew and with it went any realistic hope of retaining his championship. In a run-off for third place, he finished behind Bradford’s Arthur Forrest for a disappointing fourth placing. Belle Vue failed to emulate the improvements made in 1955 and finished fifth out of seven.

Speedway returned to Liverpool in 1957, Craven riding in several meetings at the Stanley Stadium, alas it was short lived comeback and by early June the track had closed. Things began to look up, with the Aces winning the Britannia Shield against Norwich. In the league, Peter was outstanding for the Aces and by far his countries top performer. The Aces came ever so close to winning the league championship, narrowly missing out by the odd point. Many pundits viewed him as a pre-meeting favourite for the Wembley showdown, but dropped points in his opening rides killed off any chances. He did manage to win the third place run-off with Aussie, Aub Lawson for the bronze medal.    

Peter’s 1958 season started in sensational style. As holder of the British Match Race Championship (The Golden Helmet), he met Barry Briggs in the first defence of the year. Craven blew away Briggs’ challenge, smashing the track record in the process. His winning time of 69.8 stood until October 1970, when Ivan Mauger finally lowered the time. On the domestic scene, Craven’s superb form helped guide the Aces to win the National Trophy and the Britannia Shield; a welcome improvement, this time in the right direction. Again it was a disappointing World Championship night for Peter. In a reverse of fortune, Craven, after falling, was beaten by Aub Lawson in a third place run-off. Ken McKinlay was also in that race but he too bit the Wembley dust. Internationally, Craven toured Sweden and Poland, where he displayed his undoubted talent, much to the pleasure of the home support.

Belle Vue showed they meant business and qualified for the Britannia Shield final against Wimbledon. An unfortunate injury to Dick Fisher came as a blow, as the Aces relinquished their hold on the shield. Craven by his own admission did not enjoy riding at Plough Lane, but despite this he never gave less than 100% there. During this period of time, Peter was in great demand to appear in the second half at tracks around the country. One London supporter commented that ‘Craven rides four days a week for others and once for Belle Vue’.

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He was also quick to pass knowledge on to the young up and coming lads. Graham Beattie had struggled to show any improvement, until Craven suggested he was riding the wrong type of frame. Wisely, Beattie took the advice and looked far more comfortable on the new frame. After comfortably qualifying for Wembley, Peter had a night to forget, scoring seven points; his worst final since his debut in 1954. After wintering in Australia, Craven continued to thrill the crowds with his style of riding. It is little wonder Peter was dubbed ‘The Mighty Atom and The Wizard of Balance’.

In the World Championship, Craven went through the qualifying rounds unbeaten, raising hopes that this could well be his year. The final was decided after a three man run-off involving Fundin, Moore and Craven, who finished in that order. Once again, England toured Poland, with Peter being the chief attraction. Brave riding on his previous visits made him a great favourite with the Poles, who appreciated talent. Everyone may have wanted to beat Peter Craven, but just seeing him ride was enough. It was on this tour that Peter scored a scintillating 21 point maximum, which was no mean feat in Poland at that time. The Poles were noted for their tough and uncompromising riding.

Craven’s opening home meeting in 1961 saw him meet Ronnie Moore in an elimination, to determine who would meet Ove Fundin in the Golden Helmet. Ronnie was brushed aside in Manchester and in the return at Wimbledon, but against Fundin, Peter made an unsuccessful challenge. It was another meeting between the same pair that moved manager, Ken Sharples, to declare one race as ‘One of the best seen at Belle Vue’, in his bulletin programme notes. In that race, Craven stalked Ove, before blasting around the boards to pip the Swede. This year, the final was held outside Britain, at Malmö in Sweden. Despite having ridden here previously, Peter could only muster 6 points, which included a win.

There was an interesting change to racing in Britain, when handicapping was introduced. Peter was classed as one of the 5 Grade A riders, who would race off a 20/30 yard handicap, depending on which track they were racing. Although many viewed that it would present more of a problem to the riders, it did provide some excellent racing. Craven in particular was able to display the art of passing, much to the delight of his many followers. After several years of near misses and some less than encouraging meetings, Peter finally managed to add a second championship to his collection and become the first Englishman to do so. Belle Vue had a mediocre season, with a mid-table finish, leaving Craven’s Wembley win as the  highlight of the season.

Belle Vue received a shock as the 1963 season started when Craven made it known he was considering a move from Manchester. Peter was unhappy at the reduced number of meetings, with a court of arbitration ruling that Craven should remain with Belle Vue. The season was to prove a successful one for the club, with Peter once again to the fore. Slowly, they moved closer to winning the National League Championship, for the first time since 1936. This was achieved, but in the end, the championship paled into insignificance with the tragic event that was to rock the club.

At Wembley, he put in a subdued performance, falling twice and finishing with 6 points, in what was to be his last big night appearance. Tragically, Peter was involved in a racing accident at Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Stadium on 20th September 1963. The Monarchs took on the mighty Belle Vue in a challenge match and Craven was the big draw-card for the visitors. Edinburgh held a small lead after eleven races, with Peter out for his final race in heat twelve. Craven was racing off a handicap and forged his way through the field and was on race leader George Hunter’s tail. Suddenly, Hunter, suffered engine failure and Peter, taking evasive action, ploughed into the wooden fence; the sickening thud being heard around the stadium.

Everyone realised it was a serious accident, with the stricken rider being rushed unconscious to the hospital. His family remained by his bedside until he sadly passed away at 9.10pm. It is impossible to say what might have happened had circumstances not taken over. Peter was only 29 years old, with many years of racing ahead of him, be it in Manchester or elsewhere. Class performers are a rare breed and on this count, Peter Craven oozed class. The respect he commanded from his fellow rider’s, is a magnificent tribute in itself. Realistically, Peter had at least five good years of racing left in him. He would have still been good enough for another championship. The void he left at Belle Vue could not be filled instantly and it took the club several years to build another title winning side.

 His loss was felt not only by the supporters in Britain, who he mesmerised with his unique style, mixing skill with balance. Young and old across the world mourned his death. There have been many spectacular racers in speedway, but Peter Craven was arguably the most spectacular of all. 

by Trevor James