Maldwyn Jones was a well-known racer and racing motorcycle builder of the 1910s and ‘20s. During the mid-to-late-1910s, Jones was perhaps the best dirt track racer in the Midwest. He won hundreds of regional dirt track events during his 13-year racing career, but is perhaps equally known for the bad luck that followed him at the big national events. Probably no other racer of his era led, or was in the hunt for victory, at nationals as many times as Jones only to fall prey to mechanical problems or other misfortune.
After retiring from racing, Jones became a racing engineer and stayed close to the sport. During his retirement years Jones was one of the leading sources of knowledge on motorcycle racing’s early years. He readily gave hours of interviews to writers and historians on the sport right up to the time he died in 1987.
Jones was born in 1891 and grew up in the southwestern Ohio town of Lebanon. He attended the Ohio Mechanics Institute (which later became the University of Cincinnati) studying mechanical engineering. At 18, Jones began racing an old three-horsepower Marsh at a local dirt track in his hometown. His first victory at a county fair as an amateur in 1909 earned him the top prize of a .22-caliber rifle.
By 1910, Jones was ready to turn pro. A year later, he went to work at the nearby Merkel motorcycle factory as a test rider in the repair department. By that time, Merkel was no longer fielding a full-fledged factory racing team, but the company didn’t seem to mind when Jones set up a small workshop in the corner of the basement in the factory. He started scavenging parts off old, abandoned race bikes (some as early as 1905 models) and began building a patchwork racing machine. Jones proved to be both resourceful and mechanically gifted and he built fast and reliable racing machines from the scrap heap.
Jones raced his immaculately prepared Flying Merkel and had good success in local dirt track events. By 1913, Jones was considered one of the top dirt track racers in the Midwest and he began racing nationals. While the Merkel factory never directly backed Jones, the sales department of the company at least provided traveling money for him.
In December of 1913, Jones and teammate Cleo Pineau traveled south to compete in the grueling Savannah 300-mile FAM road race national. Without a factory crew like many of the other teams, Jones and Pineau hired a couple of locals to help out for the event. In the race, Pineau was disqualified after crashing and receiving assistance from overly enthusiastic fans. Jones ran at the front all day, but his Flying Merkel broke a chain on the final lap and he finished second to Excelsior star Bob Perry. A scoring error was later found in which a lap had not been recorded for Jones early in the race, which meant he’d actually won the event. The Savannah club admitted the mistake and Jones petitioned the FAM to give him the victory, but was turned down and the permanent record gave the victory to Perry.
The Savannah debacle proved to just be the beginning of Jones’ tough luck on the national level. At the Savannah race in 1914, Jones was running a close second when his locally hired crew failed to signal him in for a gas stop and he ran dry far from the pits. Jones later led, or battled for the lead, in such top-level events as the Dodge City (Kansas) 300, the Sheepshead Bay (New York) 100-mile national board track championship and the Marion (Indiana) 200-mile road race before mechanical problems forced him to slow or retire from the races.
During the mid-1910s, Jones was dominant on countless half-mile dirt-track ovals of the Midwest. In 1914, riding his Merkel, Jones won a highly publicized five-mile match race against a Mercer race car on a dirt oval in Dayton, Ohio. During this period, Jones’ effort with Merkel kept the company in the spotlight even though the it had officially dropped its factory racing effort in 1910.
Jones’ creative designs were not confined to the racing bikes. He also designed a racing helmet that was considerably better than the leather flying caps of the day. His helmet, while still leather on the exterior, featured a cork lining to reduce impact to the head in a crash. His design was a predecessor of safer helmets that would come decades later.
When Merkel began to flounder, Jones accepted an offer to ride for Harley-Davidson in 1916. While using a Harley engine, Jones continued utilizing the excellent-handling chassis he had developed with Merkel.
During World War I, Jones worked in aviation engine research and development at McCook Field in Dayton. After the war, Jones continued to ride with the powerful Harley-Davidson racing team through 1921. In 1919, he finished second to Shrimp Burns at the FAM 100-mile board track national championship. In 1920, he was a front-runner in the Dodge City Classic before his Harley had mechanical problems and he dropped to seventh at the finish.
In 1922, Jones was signed by Excelsior and was again runner up, this time to Indian’s Gene Walker, at the M&ATA 25-mile national dirt track championship in Milwaukee. Jones also tried his hand at the growing sport of hillclimbing while riding for Excelsior and won a number of regional events.
Jones retired from racing at the end of 1922 to take a position with the Indianapolis-based Wheeler-Schebler Company, which was famous for its racing carburetors. His new position gave him a chance to stay closely involved in racing. Jones also served on the M&ATA and later the AMA’s competition committee.