Belle Vue Ace 1930 - 1947


Eric Kemp Langton was born in Leeds on 27th September 1907 and from an early age, showed particular interest in motorcycles. Perhaps this was a good thing as he was destined to become one of England’s most accomplished speedway riders. Prior to dirt track racing arriving in Britain, his riding had been on the trials circuit and speed events, including TT racing.

When the cinder game arrived in Britain, Eric was quick to find out where he could take part in the new phenomena. In fact, Eric rode in the very first meeting held at Kirkmanshulme Lane on 28th July 1928, sharing a machine with Frank Varey. Later, the pair became the spine of the great sides of the 1930’s. He was not alone in taking his early steps here in Manchester. Oliver, his elder brother, also took up the sport, winning several individual titles, during the tracks short season. At this early stage, Oliver proved to be far advanced to Eric, whom he kept in the shadows.

His initial league team was Leeds, who took part in the first northern based league in 1929. Here Langton made an early impact, with his clever and thoughtful riding. The 1930 season opened with Eric, having shifted home, moving across the Pennines to Manchester, in what was to become a long and successful association. As Belle Vue romped to the Northern League championship, Eric settled in well, helping give an unbeatable flavour to the team. He was also recognised internationally, making two appearances, albeit in the two England/Australia tests held at Belle Vue. Langton managed 8 points in each match.

During the winter seasons, the Langton’s, together with several other of the Belle Vue boys, took to the seas, travelling to Argentina and Uraguay for spells of racing in warmer climates. Tales from these trips could fill a book in their own right, and they involved tragic events. One such event was the death of Belle Vue’s Clem Cort, who received fatal injuries when he, Bob Harrison and Oliver Langton, collided with a car. At the time, the trio were all seated on the one motorcycle. News of the crash reached Eric and Frank Varey, who had secretly sailed to Buenos Aires from Montevideo to arrange meetings for the troupe. Hurriedly, the boy’s had to arrange Clem’s burial and escape from Uraguay, where the promoters were literally bankrupt.

In 1931, Eric showed exceptional form, which rewarded him a  place in all five tests against Australia. Locally, no team could match Belle Vue, who scooped a league and cup triumph over relatively poor opposition. Langton won the right to challenge Jack Parker in the National Final of the British Individual Championship (BIC); Parker was triumphant and beat Vic Huxley in the final challenge.

As Belle Vue grew stronger, so did Eric. It was often said that when Langton was on song, he was invincible; a view that would be difficult to dispute. He went one better in 1932 and won the BIC, after negotiating the series of qualifying rounds. The final was an anti-climax, when Jack Parker fell in the Belle Vue leg, breaking a collar bone. He was unable to ride in his home leg and therefore, Langton, who won 3-0 in Manchester, was awarded the championship.

Being an integral cog in the invincible Belle Vue championship teams of the 30’s, kept Eric in the limelight domestically and internationally. However, he clashed with the ACU, having received a directive to defend the BIC at Crystal Palace. Seeing that this would clash with a Belle Vue fixture on that date, he declined the ACU line, therefore forfeiting the title and its £5 per week payment. In a show of solidarity, his Belle Vue team mates took similar action in not wanting to be nominated for the event.  

Langton did have an unusual superstition of not riding on the 6th May. This dated back seven years, when Eric was injured in a road accident. Brother Oliver broke his wrist a year later and a rider was killed at a meeting in Glasgow in 1929, where Eric should have ridden; all on the 6th May.  It was easy to understand the reluctance to ride on what he regarded as his unlucky day.

Throughout Belle Vue’s ‘Golden Era’ Eric was still a difficult rider to oppose, whether it be at home or away. Yes, he did have dips in form, just as any rider can, but let’s just say that his low scores would have been welcomed by many. During this period, it was Oliver, his brother, who cared for the Langton machinery; Oliver preferred this task rather than riding. However, he was still a capable rider when called upon.

The 1936 World’s Final, where Langton finished second caused much consternation in Manchester. After twenty tough and pulsating races, Eric and Lionel Van Praag had equal points, necessitating a run-off. Langton was fast away from the start and appeared to be on his way to glory, only for the Australian to flash by on the final bend. The look on Langton’s face told the story. It appeared that an agreement had been reached prior to the race, that whoever led into the first bend would be the first champion. However, this was the final and with the prestige attached to the event, it is quite understandable that Van Praag wanted to win too.

The 1937 season was a bad one for Eric, he suffered from a lack of form, but there was still some silverware to be won and Eric was good at inspiring others. 1938 followed a similar pattern, but it was niggling injuries that affected him. And this was the story of the Aces season that year. No sooner had a rider returned from injury, than another suffered a similar fate. If anything, Eric’s form returned with a vengeance in 1939, giving the Aces a familiar look that made teams fear them in the mid 30’s. His experience and wise words of encouragement helped the younger members, notably Ernie Price and Jack Hargreaves. Both made tremendous strides up the ladder under the master’s watchful eye.

Speedway ceased in Manchester, with the 2nd September match with Southampton, being cancelled pending the expected declaration of war with Germany. That was that, or so it seemed. Yet by the 23rd September, the Hyde Road turnstiles clicked merrily again, with two meetings taking place. One was a team event between sides led by Langton and Varey. During the hostilities, Eric was a regular at the Saturday meetings, meeting with a degree of success, although for a spell he missed racing due to his job at Scott Motorcycles.

Belle Vue’s horrendous start to the season prompted Eric to reconsider his short-lived retirement. His return to Belle Vue came on 14th May 1946, when he was allocated to the Manchester side. The mere presence was enough to lift the spirits, as Langton reeled off a run of impressive scores. This helped lift the Aces into second place in the league and wins in the National Trophy and ACU Cup. Another mid-season comeback in 1947 stiffened the Belle Vue team, who again finished second to Wembley, but retained the National Trophy. Having reached his 40th birthday, Eric’s retirement was confirmed, bringing down the curtain on a glittering career.

Langton was a respected engine tuner and frame builder, besides having a business in Bradford. Briefly, he had a spell promoting at Sheffield, at a time when speedway's crowds dwindled. He and his wife, Mary, settled in Perth, Australia, in 1957 and remained there until his death in 2000. In his retirement, Eric used his time well, by restoring vintage cars and motorcycles. His ashes were later brought ‘home’ and scattered on the family grave.

Greatness can be measured in differing ways, in Eric’s case, you can point to his considerable trophy and medal haul, seventeen league and cup wins and of course coming close to winning the inaugural world’s final ; all achieved with one club. Loyalty is a hard thing to find, but Langton never once contemplated leaving Manchester, even abandoning retirement to assist his beloved Belle Vue.

Leadership of his club and country, together with consistency of performance, were the qualities that Eric Langton had in abundance. Above all, he was a gentleman, with the highest respect for his fellow competitors.

by Trevor James