A history of motorbikes and racing
Sidecar racing is a passion for the family that owns Motorcycle HQ in Pahiatua, north of Masterton.
Three generations of the Skilton family have owned the business since it was founded by motorcycle and sidecar builder Bill Skilton in 1925.
Granddaughter Carolyn, who owns the business with her husband (and sidecar racer) Simon Windelborn, says her Grandad Bill was well known for the bikes he built for racing. "His 1928 Bill Skilton Special was bought by a private Auckland collector a few years ago for almost $20,000. But Bill never raced them himself because one leg was badly injured when it was crushed between a truck and a cliff when he was a young man.”
Even more well known on the circuits is Carolyn’s dad, Gordon Skilton (above in 1958), who won 10 national and many region titles on his 1956 Norton Manx bike.
Gordon retired from racing in 1976 but took it up again in 2001 when he was 70 to take part in the 50th anniversary of Whanganui’s infamous Cemetery Circuit. He carried on racing for several more years so he could partner with his granddaughter Maxine in the sidecar. Maxine went on to take up Formula 1 bike racing but gave it up after being badly injured. Gordon too has suffered some serious smackdowns while racing, as has his son-in-law Simon. “I’ll keep on racing though,” says Simon. “It’s too much fun to stop yet.”
The first of the family’s Pahiatua workshops was set up by Bill Skilton in a wooden building, and for a brief time he worked with his brother Charlie. “But Charlie had quite a fiery temper, prone to throwing hammers around according to family legend. They only stayed together for a very short time,” says Gordon. The company had a name change to W. Skilton and Son in 1963 when Gordon joined his dad in the business.
A new workshop was built on the site in 1965 and then in 1990 the business was moved to the main street of Pahiatua, leasing what was once the local power board headquarters. Gordon owned the business until he retired, selling it to his partner Tony Jury.
“During the 1980s and ‘90s, my husband Simon worked for the business before setting up his own workshop at our house,” says Carolyn.
However, when Tony Jury was killed in a road accident, the couple decided to buy the business back. They took over in 2011.
Simon says, “Until then, I had just one employee, and was selling and repairing mostly Polaris farm machinery and chainsaws. Suddenly we were employing 13 people.”
For Carolyn, who had been working in an accountancy firm, it was a move back to her roots. “It meant a lot to me to be working in a business that had such a strong connection to my family. The workshop has a lot of my grandfather and father’s tools and machinery, and I can remember being in there playing as a kid.” she says.
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On Wellington Anniversary Day (January 20) in 2014, the 6.2 Eketahuna earthquake struck. “It was one almighty jolt,” says Carolyn. While none of the stock was damaged, the landlord needed to completely gut and rebuild the front part of the business – the showroom and office area. The rear buildings, which make up the workshop and storage areas, were undamaged. Motorcycle HQ was relocated to another building on the main street for four years while the work was done. “Then, just a few days before we re-opened, there was a massive rainstorm and the ceiling tiles all needed to be replaced, so there was another delay.”
However, the earthquake rebuild gave Carolyn and Simon the chance to add a few historical features to the showroom. These include setting a few of her grandfather’s tools into the large wooden counter and designing wall-mounted display areas for half a dozen classic bikes (Simon has a particular interest in older Suzuki dirt bikes).
The couple’s long-term plan is to consolidate the business, rather than expand, and add a few comforts, like better heating for the workshop. Simon says “Farming makes up the base of our sales and repair work, and there’s been a bit of downturn in the rural sector in the last few years. Around 12 farms in the area have been sold for forestry planting, so that has an impact.” He says that 20 years ago there were about 20 motorcycle workshops within 50 kilometres of Pahiatua.
“There are still three dealerships in Pahiatua,” he says “but some of the others have now closed.”
Finding new income streams is important. “We sell a lot of our used stock on Trade Me these days, perhaps as much as half. All the work to get them ready for sale goes through the workshop, so this is a significant part of the business,” explains Simon.
The business sells Suzuki CFMoto motorcycles and side- by-sides. It also sells outdoor machinery and power tools.