Alvin “Spike” Rhiando

Alvin "Spike" Rhiando

Whether by design or not, Alvin "Spike" Rhiando is something of an enigma. Much of his life was surrounded in doubt and confusion, but he was certainly a well-liked character in the early days of the 500 era. Spike was possibly Canadian, born in Saskatchewan, though he was also reported as both American and even Mexican – others would suggest he had got no nearer Canada than the Greenford cinder track! He claimed that his parents were trapeze artists, and that as a child he was part of the act. There may be some truth in this version which claims that his father was Albert Stevens, better known as the juggler "Rebla", his mother German and that Spike was born in Berlin in 1910. He also claimed that he was scheduled to come to Europe on the Lusitania on its fateful journey in 1915.

Spike's autograph courtesy Tony Taylor

In 1933, he did move to England, with the aim of establishing American-style Midget racing on the existing motorcycle cinder tracks. Although certainly more dramatic than the existing British alternatives on the long tracks (such as Crystal Palace, Lea Bridge, and Greenford) and stadium-based short tracks, the idea never really caught on. Contemporary reports all appeared to suffix Spike’s name with “the American dirt track racing ace”, although there is little evidence to justify this title. Through the war years, Spike apparently worked for the British arm of the Caterpillar company.

The post-war government of Clement Attlee initiated the notorious Tanganyika Groundnut Project, and Spike saw the opportunity to make good money from his knowledge of earth-moving. He lasted nearly two years, returning from the fiasco with a comfortable nest egg.

The 500 movement immediately appealed to his midget racing roots, and he was one of the first six customers for a Cooper Mk II. Though others may claim the credit, John Cooper stated that it was Spike who first suggested dropping a V twin into the Mk II. The necessary modifications were made in return for one of Spike’s JAP twins, and Spike made his first appearance in the Manx Cup, 25th May 1948 (in 1,000cc guise). The Cooper featured bodywork that had been engine-turned and gold lacquered, with many other parts heavily chromed. Gregor Grant of Autosport immediately christened it “The Flying Banana’.

Spike wins the British Grand Prix support race.

Spike’s first appearance with a 500 motor may well have been the British Grand Prix meeting at Silverstone in October that year. With 34 entries, pretty much every 500 capable of running was in attendance. The 50 mile race was a bit of a shambles – when Earl Howe dropped the flag, only two drivers were ready, and Eric Brandon was standing beside his car! After Stirling Moss’ similar car lost drive, Spike went on to win the most prestigious 500 race to date.

He continued with the Mk II in 500 and 1,000 formats through 1949, but like many was looking for a way of bettering the Coopers. Spike sold the Mk II to Charlie Headland and commissioned the Trimax. Arguably the first monocoque race car (certainly years before the Lotus 33), Spike also claimed it had been tested in a wind tunnel…

Spike appears in Road & Track in January 1950. Thanks to John Streets.

The car made its debut at the Goodwood Easter meeting, 1950, quickly retiring with gear trouble. Though groundbreaking in many respects, the car was compromised by its ability to install larger engines. The best result we have for the Trimax is a third place in the heats at Brands Hatch in July. By the end of the season, Spike sold the car to an American, and would purchase Dennis Flather’s Flather Special for 1951. This proved more successful with a number of placings including a third in the Non production car race at Silverstone for the Commander Yorke meeting.

Spike’s mind was now on other things, and his racing programme reduced. He had become interested in the new glass fibre material. He came up with a very neat scooter concept and built a prototype with Cooper mechanic, Don Palmer featuring a two stroke Villiers engine.

Spike arrives at Goodwood for the debut of the Trimax, 10th April 1950. Image provided by Michael Aikey.

Spike with his trans-Sahara scooter.

To prove the concept, he decided to ride it from London to Cape Town and may have been inspired by Claude Tipper's travels in his Bond Minicar In typical Spike-style, preparation involved packing a small bag and setting off! Somewhere in the Sahara, he was found in a very poor state, resting in the shade of a large rock, by a patrol of the French Foreign Legion. The scooter had worked fine, and may still be by that rock.

His glass fibre work also lead him to designing an invalid carriage for AC Cars. In search of work (his Tanganyika money now long gone), he was contracted by American Bill Curtis to design a glass fibre bodied car. The Shamrock was to be built in Ireland, for sale in both America and Britain and based on Austin A55 engine and drive train. It was announced in 1959 as “the first large scale production all plastic vehicle to become available in this country. It was a complete failure, and just eight were built.

A colour portrait of Spike by Guy Griffiths

The Shamrock

Details are sketchy, but it appears that Spike stayed in Ireland, and died some years later. Or he may have died much later in 1975 in Marylebone, London....

For all the stories told about (and perhaps by) Spike, there is little doubt that he was one of the characters of the movement, and was fondly remembered by all who knew him, especially for his taste for lurid shirts most out of keeping with austerity Britain. Alvin "Spike" Rhiando was, and still is, a mystery so if you can add anything to the story, fact or fiction, please get in touch.