Real Life

Les and Olivia are revving their engines!

The doting grandad has passed on the need for speed
Photos: Kellie Blizard

Ever the showman, Les Harris smooths down his white hair, grabs the handlebars of his black 1960 BSA Bantam motorcycle and pretends to give it a rev for our cameras.

At 99 years young, this irrepressible “speed-freak” made history last year. He claimed the title of “world’s oldest competitive motorcycle racer” in the Guinness Book of Records.

“I don’t like sitting still… Being active and keeping my brain active, that’s my secret,” smile Les. He also regularly performs his button accordian at country and western clubs.

Les took out the world title after competing in the Pukekohe 43rd Classic Motorcycle Festival in Auckland in 2023, three weeks shy of his 98th birthday. He rode in the Regularity Parade, a competition to see who among the field can ride the most consistent lap times. But what makes his feat even more special is that his granddaughter Olivia was competing alongside him.

Bonding over bikes, the pair will be celebrating Les’ 100th birthday with a ride.

The only female in the race, she rode Les’ old green Bantam BSA from 1950.

“I got very emotional just sitting on his bike – which I’d seen my whole life. Even more so when I was on the track in the same race as Poppy,” recalls Olivia. “I could see him in front of me and it felt so surreal! He beat me too and came fourth!”

Racing is obviously in the blood. Like her grandfather, Olivia, 22, feels nothing but joy when donning their leathers and going at speeds of nearly 130km/per hour.

“It’s fabulous that Olivia is following in my footsteps,” enthuses Les. “We’re both quite determined, fearless and share a positive outlook on life. And she’s taken to riding like a duck to water, haven’t you sweetie?” he says, smiling at her proudly.

Olivia was riding her first petrol-powered Honda 50cc at just six years old. Now, she lives in Whangārei and is studying to be an Early Childcare Education teacher.

“I remember going and watching Poppy racing the historic hill climb by the Chelsea Sugar Factory in Birkenhead. He’d come back and excitedly tell us about his ride. I’d jump on his bike to pretend I was riding it too.”

The same bike Olivia competed on.

Raised on a dairy farm in the Waikato town of Pokuru, Les says he was a sickly child – until an article in the Weekly changed his health trajectory.

“Being brought up on the farm, I was always drinking milk or having cream on my porridge. When I got pleurisy [inflamation of the membranes lining the lungs and chest wall], I was so bored, I used to read Mum’s Weekly. There was a column written by a naturopath called Madam Louisa. That’s how I got into eating well and found out my health problems were caused by a dairy intolerance!”

Uninterested in farming, Les felt “hopeless” at school due to having dyslexia.

“I couldn’t retain information, so I’ve learned everything by looking at ‘how-to’ books. I was into motorbikes and taught myself the accordion and how to be a mechanic. It saved me, really.”

After World War II, he sold his Harley-Davidson motorbike so he could escape the expectation of helping run the family farm.

“I stole my father’s car just to get to Te Awamutu and abandoned it at the railway station to catch a train to Wellington,” he confides. “When I was in the car, I was laughing and crying because I finally felt free. It’s still very emotional for me to talk about today. That was the beginning of my great life.”

His first job was at the freezing works in Timaru, which also heralded the start of his racing career, when an engineering colleague offered to sell him his 1937 Triumph motorbike.

Les in his happy place, tinkering away in the garage.

Les went on to win many class prizes up until 2019, when he thought he had finally retired from circuit racing – until he made his inspiring comeback at Pukekohe Raceway with Olivia in 2023.

Nowadays, you’ll find the self-sufficient nonagenarian in his West Auckland shed tinkering with one of his eight bikes (in bits) or sifting through classic car parts and memorabilia.

So does this grandfather-of-13 foresee himself ever hanging up his helmet?

“Not a chance! Olivia and I plan to compete at Manfield next year just before my 100th birthday in February. So I have to keep myself fit, eat my veges and work on getting more sleep.

“I read about an English guy in the newspaper who’s 114. So I’m going to aim for that. I love living too much!”

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