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Blue Plaque to honour Rex McCandless

25 October 2018

The Ulster History Circle, in partnership with the Ulster-Scots Agency unveiled a new Blue Plaque to commemorate Richard ’Rex’ McCandless (I9I5-I992), Engineer and Inventor of the Featherbed Motorcycle Frame in 1949 and also the developer of Gyroplanes.

Rex McCandless was born on 21st May 1915 on his father’s farm at Culcavy, Hillsborough, and the oldest of two sons born to Joseph McCandless and Sarah Cromie.

During the great Depression of the 1930’s, the family moved to Belfast and eventually Rex and his brother Cromie set up the excavator and heavy repair business. Their business associate was the Irish Road Racer, Artie Bell. Both brothers had always been motor cycle enthusiasts, and Rex owned several machines. The Second World War intervened and it was not until peace was declared, that the motor cycle sport was revitalised and became very much part of Rex and Cromie’s lives.

By 1949, Rex who always thought that the pre-war machines with their hard frames and suspension that broke easily, were difficult to handle over the rough Irish roads, had invented and developed a frame which set new standards in steering and roadholding.  It was this creation that changed the face of motor cycle racing for the next 25 years, and the first time the bike appeared in 1950, it won the TT races. The ‘Featherbed’ name came from a remark made by a Norton works rider, who said that the new bike was so comfortable; it would be possible to go to sleep on.

Not only did Rex McCandless invent and create, he also raced and won several road races and won hill climb championships with his car, whilst his brother Cromie, with the legendary Geoff Duke and Artie Bell, became household names, and every motorcycle frame made since 1950 had to measure up to the Norton Featherbed which was used by Norton during the 1950/1960’s. It was not until much later in the world of motor cycle racing that new superbikes with higher speeds were created to the standard that we watch and so enjoy today.

Northern Ireland is proud of its world class motorcycle racing and its world famous riders. However, it was a man from Northern Ireland, some 70 years ago who set the prototype and the ‘Featherbed’ Norton became a household name. Rex’s talents did not stop at the motorcycle; he was also a developer of the gyroplane and had workshops at Crumlin and Newtownards. His talents were endless, and his achievements have been largely forgotten in the world of modern technology.  His creativity and inventiveness play an important part of our history, with motorcycles, four wheel drive racing cars, brick making and gyroplanes.

Rex died in 1992 and is buried in his beloved village of Killough, Co. Down.

Ian Crozier, Chief Executive of the Ulster-Scots Agency commented; “The Ulster-Scots Agency are delighted to support the Ulster History Circle in unveiling this commemorative plaque in honour of Rex McCandless, engineer, inventor and Ulster-Scot.

“Rex McCandless was a talented individual and a great role model not only to the people of North Belfast, but also to the people of Ulster. As an Agency, we want to help share his story, as well as the stories of many other great Ulster-Scots through our initiative ‘Ingenious Ulster’. This programme of work celebrates the Ulster-Scots who have helped changed the world through science and innovation with the aim of inspiring communities to be proud of who they are and where they come from. It also inspires our children and young people to be involved in the world of engineering and science and encourages them to become the innovators of our future.”

Chairman of the Ulster History Circle, Chris Spurr said: "Rex McCandless excelled as an engineer and inventor, particularly in the areas of motor sport and aviation. The development of the Featherbed motorcycle frame, the McCandless racing car and the gyroplane are amongst his many achievements.  The Ulster History Circle is delighted to commemorate this remarkable innovator with a blue plaque on the premises where he was in business.  The Circle would particularly like to thank the Ulster-Scots Agency for their financial support towards the plaque, and the Board of W.A.C. McCandless Limited for their assistance."

Special guest, former motorbike racer Jeremy McWilliams officially unveiled the new plaque at Rex’s family business, W.A.C. McCandless (Engineering) Limited where the historic McCandless Racing Car and a Vintage Featherbed Norton Motorcycle were also on display.