Remembering Rem Fowler: 1907 and the first ever Isle of Man TT race

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Published on 4 February 2016 by Tom Wadlow

Laid to rest in a modest grave in a Birmingham churchyard, Harry Rembrandt Fowler’s story is an extraordinary one, as BMF’s Ted Foreman discovered purely by chance.

Fifteen years ago I was strolling through the grounds of the Parish Church of Saint James the Great in Shirley, Birmingham.

My boss at Goodyear was on a delayed flight from Luxembourg, so I parked up and walked to an Indian restaurant, and bumped into Rem Fowler on the way.

Even I, a motorcycling child of the 70s, had heard of him. What chance it was that I glanced across at that moment and saw what is an unassuming gravestone, belying the great man’s fame and achievements.

It was only weeks ago when I truly discovered how significant Rem Fowler is. Returning from Stratford-Upon-Avon after watching Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I decided to revisit his grave and look into the story of 1907.

Not only did Rem Fowler win the first ever Isle of Man TT race, he won it against the odds in scarcely believable, bizarre circumstances.

Nerves, spring forks and brandy

It was a cold, cloudy morning on May 28 1907. The 25 single and twin cylinder competitors practiced in and among the bustle of regular traffic on the un-tarred roads of the 15-mile St John’s Course.

Engines spluttering and crowds gathered, the racers made their way to Tynwald Hill.  “I was in no fit state to ride for I was in a very run down and nervous condition,” Rem recalls in his record of the event.

And he was right to be nervous. Not only had an abscess in Fowler’s neck been heavily bandaged just two days before the race, fellow competitors warned that his 700cc Norton bike was dangerously incompatible for the course.

Spring forks and the sheer length of the bike’s wheel base, rivals believed, would make it almost impossible for Rem to negotiate corners.

His response? Bullish. “The answer to that was: I won,” he says in his account.

Arch rival Billy Wells entered the race on a Vindec, but Rem was ready for his challenge following a quick tonic to sooth the nerves.

“A friend of mine fetched me a glassful of neat brandy tempered with a little milk. This had the desired effect and I set off full of hope and Dutch courage.” Wearing a coat stuffed with a spanner and four spare spark plugs, all of which would be needed, Rem began the 158-mile journey.

Acid and flames

Much of today’s TT course covers the same trail on which the 25 1907 riders blazed around. However, fast forward a century and the quality of the surface appears light years apart.

The section of track between Ballacraine and Kirk Michael was subject to routine pummelling by cars in 1907, so TT organisers decided the best course of action was to spray this stretch of road with an acid solution. This did not have the desired effect. Not only did the acid do nothing to settle the swelling clouds of dust, it also burned holes in the riders’ clothes.

Corrosion, however, was probably the least of Rem’s problems during the race. He encountered so many issues changing tyres, plugs and belts that at one stage he decided enough was enough and called it a day. It was not until a spectator informed him that he was a massive half an hour ahead of Billy Wells that he gleefully set off again with his initial gusto restored.

Rem almost stopped again when faced with what he described as his most exciting moment. He recalls: “I had to make up my mind whether to stop and maybe lose the race or plunge blind through a wall of fire which stretched right across the road at the Devil’s Elbow, caused by a bike which had crashed there.”

“Owing to the density of the smoke and flames I had no idea where the wrecked machine was. A boy scout with a flag tried to stop me but I decided to risk it and luckily came through OK. I shall never forget the hot blast of those flames.”

It could have been worse – in 1922 17-year-old Stanley Woods was himself set on fire thanks to defects in his bike, namely a broken exhaust and a pit which burst into flames. Somehow he finished fifth. 

Despite his endless struggles and do or die moments, Rem Fowler won the first ever TT and recorded the fastest lap in the process, clocking 22 minutes and six seconds at a speed of 42.91mph. That his overall 10-lap race time was 13 minutes slower than the single-cylinder victor Charlie Collier shows just how much of an ordeal the event was. Indeed, at one point Rem was thrown off his Norton doing 60mph after part of his tyre burst.

£25 and a place in history

Physically and emotionally bruised, Rem was presented a magnificent trophy by the by the Marquis de Mouzilly – the same trophy that is handed to winners today. He also walked away with £25 in prize money, around £2,700 to us.

Silverware and cash aside, it was a place in motorcycling folklore that Rem secured on May 28 1907.

A remarkable victory against all the odds, he had already reached the pinnacle of his racing career, for the following years saw Fowler slide down the rankings. The Norton failed to get Rem to the finish line the following year, while 1909 and 1910 saw him finish 16th riding a Rex.

In 1911 the TT course included the well-known mountain section for the first time, the race being split into Junior (300cc singles and 340cc twins) and Senior (500cc singles and 585cc twins) contests. The mountain section was actually part of the original 1904 Gordon Bennett Car Trial, which was to include a trial race for motorbikes the following year. However, the inability of bikes to negotiate the climbs led to the course being redirected until its return in 1911. So in January 1907, the Editor of the The Motor-Cycle magazine suggested a new motorbike race be made, and the TT was born.

1911 was to be Rem’s final TT appearance, finishing 19th in the Junior race and not finishing the Senior. He continued competing into the 1920s. His place in history, however, had long been secured.

A skilled toolmaker by trade, Rem was involved in calibrating gun sites in World War One and helped build for the Air Force in the Second World War. He lived into his 80s until 1963, when he passed away in SolihullHospital.  

And it is here in Solihull where he can be found today, by pure chance in my case - a wholly unsuspecting gravestone, yet such extraordinary stories behind it.