As a trials competitor, motorcycle designer, and motorcycling historian, Sammy Miller has won international renown. During his career, Miller rode his way to nine gold medals in the International Six Days Trials. He was the British Observed Trials Champion for 11 consecutive years. Miller also designed trials motorcycles, including the Ariel GOV 132 and Bultaco Sherpa, which influenced the Trials movement across America in the 1960s. As founder of The Sammy Miller Motorcycle Museum in Southern England, Miller continued to promote and preserve the history of motorcycle competition worldwide.
Samuel Hamilton Miller was born in Belfast on November 11, 1933. His father, who owned a home improvement business, was a sportsman motorcycle and car driver in his day. As a boy, Miller attended the famous Ulster Grand Prix and cheered for the great Irish road racers of that era such as Stanley Woods, Artie Bell, Ernie Lyons and the McCandless brothers, Cromie and Rex.
Young Sammy kept a racing scrapbook with articles and photos of his heroes. One day, Miller went to Art Bell and Rex McCandless’ motorcycle shop with a couple of his friends to seek autographs of the star racers for his scrapbook. Before he left, Miller mustered the courage to ask Bell what the most important ingredient needed to be a top racer. Bell replied, “Enthusiasm.” The answer left Miller a little disappointed, but he later learned the wisdom of Bell’s reply and found out that when the going gets rough, that is exactly what a rider needs most.
Miller got his drivers license when he was 15 and bought a 1929 Francis-Barnett for the equivalent of $20. The only problem was that he hadn’t won his mother’s approval. He coerced his aunt, who lived five miles away, into letting him keep his motorcycle at her house. So whenever he wanted to ride he had to first ride a tram to get to his aunt’s.
When he turned 18, Miller entered his first competition, a local grass track meet. By this time, Miller had moved up to a 150cc New Imperial. It was a muddy event, yet Miller found the skill to negotiate the tricky circuit.
“I led until the plug melted,” Miller said in a magazine interview. “Nobody told me about things like plugs.”
Nevertheless, Miller had launched what would become one of the most colorful and triumphant careers in motorcycle racing.
Miller became involved in road racing and in 1954 won his first road race, the Cookstown 100, on an AJS 7R. After a short time, he earned his first sponsored ride aboard an NSU Sportmax 250. That set in motion a chain of events that led Miller to a career on the World Championship circuit. He scored a slew of podium finishes in both the 125cc and 250cc World Championships. He finished third in the 250cc World Championships in 1957, his career-best ranking.
Miller unexpectedly turned his back on road racing, feeling he was not getting top-notch machinery on the teams he rode for. It was during this period of frustration that Miller would ride his trials machine in the peaceful countryside as a form of relaxation.
By 1958, Miller concentrated on trials with a contract from Ariel and began a reign in that sport that resulted in an amazing 11 consecutive British championships as well as two European trials titles. Miller also showed his versatility by earning nine gold medals in the prestigious International Six Days Trials (later renamed International Six Days Enduro). His performances on the Ariel HT5 he helped develop made that motorcycle famous. He later rode for Bultaco and Honda, helping both companies design their line of trials machinery.
Many consider Miller to be the most successful trials rider of all time. It is estimated that he won more than 1,300 trials events during his long and successful career. His style was described as cerebral and precise, in contrast to the more showy, athletic approach used by some top riders.
Miller’s influence was wide-reaching, including in America. Bultaco organized tours in the early 1970s that brought Miller to the United States to give trials riding clinics and performances. Miller taught hundreds of American riders the art of trials riding and helped grow the sport in 1970s America to heights not previously known.
“The only way I can describe Sammy Miller is he was the dominant force in the sport of trials for 11 years,” said Lane Leavitt, three-time American trials champion. “He was the British Champion 11 straight years and at that point in history the British were the best, so really if you won the British Championship you were the best in the world.
“What Miller did for trials in the U.S. was exactly what Roger DeCoster, Joel Robert, Torsten Hallman and people like that did for motocross here.”
Miller continued to be active in motorcycling, winning races in a remarkable span of more than 50 years. His latter years have been spent running a successful international mail order business for bike parts and accessories in his native Great Britain. He was also a formidable competitor in vintage events.
Miller and his wife, Rosemary, also established a motorcycle museum in New Milton. The museum houses one of the finest collection of fully restored motorcycles in Europe, including factory racers and exotic prototypes, plus memorabilia spanning seven decades of motorcycling. There are over 300 rare and classic motorcycles on display. It is a living museum. Miller has taken his motorcycles to demonstrations at race circuits throughout Europe and as far away as New Zealand and America. Some of his rare machines were part of the Art of the Motorcycle exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Miller will always be remembered for his unique versatility and flawless riding style on all types of racing motorcycles. His influence in trials motorcycle design was second to none and he helped popularize the sport in America in the early 1970s. Miller was also an exceptional businessman and a notable motorcycle collector.