…AND SON. SIR JIM RATCLIFFE IS BRITAINS RICHEST INDIVIDUAL AT £18.15 BILLION. WITH A ‘B’. HE’S MADE HIS FORTUNE IN PLASTICS, FRACKING AND PETROCHEMICALS. MUCH MORE INTERESTING IS HE’S A BIKER, THINKS TRIUMPH’S ARE OVERRATED AND IS THE NEW OWNER OF BELSTAFF. BIKE’S JOHN NAISH ENGAGES...
This all appears quite normal, i’m on a surrey dual carriage way behind a BMW GS1250 rider who’s in jeans, trainers and a Belstaff jacket. We’re spoddling along at the legal limit. i’m looking at his jacket. it’s not new or flash. But buying Belstaff is a costly option nowadays. however, this guy hasn’t only bought the jacket. he’s bought the whole company. Hitting the road with Britain’s richest man, Sir Jim ratcliffe, 66, the chemicals billionaire and overland adventure rider, is an unusual business. Our day started at a jet-set enclave normally closed to the grubby likes of photographer Chippy and me. a special code got the pair of us into Farnborough’s exclusive airport, where exec planes sit like showroom toys. in the car park a guy’s taking delivery of a new lambo. We sit in the silently plush lounge. Chippy asks about this ratcliffe chap. Well, he owns most of ineos, a chemicals company that made £2.2bn last year.
He employs 18,500 people, owns two super-yachts and is worth about £20bn. Flabbergasted Chippy asks: ‘Flamin’ ’eck, how should we address him?’ Er, ‘Jim’ I guess. Chippy’s got me rattled. Will Sir Jim be some hyper type-A male: rude, pushy and riding too fast for the roads and his abilities? A black helicopter lands, bringing Jim and son George from London. They beat us to the bikes parked outside. George, 30, is keen, friendly and along for the ride. Jim is tall and lean, and less kempt even than Chippy. He’s all over the BMW R1250GS Exclusive we’ve borrowed for the day.
Jim’s a serial GS owner and has bought the same new model, had it delivered, but not had time to take it out of his London garage. First-world problem? No. Different planet. With Jim bag-sing the BMW, Triumph-fan George is delighted to try the Triumph Scrambler we’ve also brought along. So at last I get to prise the Royal Enfield Interceptor from Hugo’s grasp. He’s even left petrol in the tank. We all set off happily for the country roads of Thursley National Nature Reserve in the leafy Surrey Hills. Jim’s up front. Not just because he’s a captain of industry: the Beemer’s the only bike with satnav. Following behind lets me eyeball his style: Jim rides to the legal limits, relaxed and capable. The joy of the Interceptor is that you just jump on and go: no challenges, though a few more horses would be welcome.
In the lanes Jim’s loving the ride. We pull over for Chippy to take snaps and Jim eyes the Interceptor’s spindly forks. ‘They look pretty basic. Bet you’re getting bumped around,’ he says. (I am.) ‘The BMW’s perfect for this. Hardly feel anything.’ It’s a warm spring day. Jim and George have just returned from a cycling trip in the Canaries. They ride together like they’ve got a psychic bond, anticipating every move. One of Jim’s people’s stipulations for the ride is that we keep him supplied with good hot coffee. We find a pub garden and pull over. ‘I like the bike,’ he declares. ‘But I’m not sure that you can tell much difference from the previous model. That’s BMW’s problem. They’re already so good.’ George, however, isn’t so impressed with the Scrambler. ‘It’s not as exciting as I anticipated,’ he says. ‘I had high hopes for the bigger engine.
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I owned the previous-model Triumph Thruxton. But despite the price hike this engine doesn’t seem to give you that much more.’ Jim tuts: ‘I keep telling George that the BMW is a proper bike to have, but he’s insisted on Triumphs. We had a long weekend in Scotland a while ago, riding across the top and down the West Coast. Every morning we had rain overnight. The Triumph was the bike we had to jump start each time.’ Im enjoys machines that simply fulfil their promised function: ‘You can say that the Triumph has character,’ he says. ‘I reckon it’s character you don’t need in a bike.’ This nuts’n’bolts ethos chimes with his past.
He was born in a Lancashire council house, the son of a father who was a joiner and a mother who was an accounts office worker. He completed a degree in chemical engineering, then worked for Esso and in finance until the age of 40 when he launched his first company, the petrochemicals firm Inspects before that entrepreneurial step, Jim bought his first motorbike. ‘My folks had always been motorcyclists but they always discouraged me from riding. My dad had seen a lot of his friends killed,’ he explains. ‘I almost did the motorbike test just to irritate my father. Right after passing on a 125 I bought a white VFR 750. The seller trailered it to my house and suggested I try it. I said “No thanks” and wheeled it into the garage. I didn’t want him to see me making a fool of myself. I felt petrified of the thing.’ ‘First time I got on it, though, I rode from Coventry to Wales and back, to get used to it.’
For the first six months of running Inspec Jim commuted on the bike from Cobham, Surrey to the New Forest. ‘But I had a few “moments” on it and thought I would not live for long if I carried on that way,’ he recalls. He sold the VFR after two years. Jim’s biking hiatus ended 15 years later when he bought his first BMW R1200GS. ‘That was my first Africa trip – a month’s riding,’ he says. ‘I was 57. Africa was just an adventure. You always want plans for an adventure in your locker.’ I point to his trainers and ask: ‘not worried about breaking your foot again?’ He laughs: ‘no, not a great choice today. But I have broken more bones riding bicycles than motorbikes.’ The fractured-foot incident occurred on his second motorbike trip around Africa, to mark his 60th birthday. He broke three bones in a fall, then emailed his company doctor for advice. The doctor said: ‘stop riding.’ Instead, Jim got his ski boot sent over and kept going.
‘We rode around Southern Africa – starting at Cape Town, up to Lesotho, up the Sani pass and back, (I fell off three times in the rain on the way down), then to Mozambique, through Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia and back to Cape Town.’ He and George trained beforehand. To prepare for Africa’s dunes they enlisted an Icelandic motocross champion to teach them to ride on local black sand on 250cc bikes. ‘African sand is horrible,’ says Jim. ‘Especially when you drop a big BMW in it.’ Nevertheless, Jim says he prefers off-road to street riding: ‘Roads are more dangerous because of traffic,’ he says. Last year Jim and 18 others completed a 34-day trip from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile to Ushuaia, on the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego. ‘We went up to 4900m at one point,’ Jim says. ‘The bikes coughed and spluttered a bit, but thankfully none of us suffered altitude sickness. I tried running a hundred metres or so, and you just cannot get your breath back at that altitude.’
Back down to Earth Jim recently completed the purchase of Belstaff, the bikers’ foul-weather favourite turned catwalk star. He remembers the clothes from the days when pub landlords would ban you for fear of getting their banquettes greasy. ‘My folks used to wear Belstaff gear when they would go out in their motorcycle and sidecar. My mum still swears by it,’ he says. ‘The brand is remarkable, with its affiliations with people such as Lawrence of Arabia. You can’t buy that sort of history.’ But where, we all want to know, is Belstaff going next? Is it for bikers, or supermodels only? ‘Belstaff had gone off in some funny directions,’ agrees Jim. ‘It had set off in a Prada direction, which we don’t think is proper Belstaff. We want to focus on the fact that the products are high quality. You can buy other waxed jackets for half the price. So it’s always going to be high end.’
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As for specific plans, there aren’t any yet. ‘It’s new to us. It’s a learning curve so you have to find out as you progress. We’ve got to get our heads around this – and it is a challenge,’ he says. ‘I mean, fashion! How do you understand people spending big money on ripped jeans? If you don’t get that, then go and run a chemicals business instead,’ he laughs. The general direction is real-world, rather than off-the- shoulder, however. ‘Belstaff is a great old British heritage brand,’ Jim explains. ‘It sits comfortably with our Grenadier plan – British, uncompromising and solid.’ The Grenadier is another pet project, to build a worthy successor to the Land Rover Defender, which ceased production in 2016. Jaguar Land Rover axed it after 67 years without announcing a successor,’ says Jim. ‘We decided to step in and do the same but better – the build on the late ones was poor.’ ‘The Grenadier’s ethos is that there should be nothing there that does not have a reason for being there. It’s going to be a farmers’ car that you can hose down both outside and inside.’
Meanwhile, Jim’s industrial eminence is clouded by the fact that he’s a climate-protesters’ public enemy number one, thanks to his involvement in plastics, fracking and petrochemicals. His company Ineos manufactures the raw materials for products that touch nearly all aspects of everyday life, from bottle caps and toothpaste to computers and cars. My own enviro-indignation is tempered by the fact that we’ve just been burning up hydrocarbons for fun. We’re all hypocrites. Jim agrees, but to him it’s water off a Trialmaster. ‘If you’re in hospital, your drip bag and tubes are made from plastic, your car is 50 per cent plastic to keep it light and reduce emissions, all your electricity supplies are insulated with plastics. We depend on this stuff, like it or not,’ he says. ‘But that’s only half the equation. The other half is we’re not the people who chuck plastics in the sea. 90 per cent of that comes from ten rivers, eight of them in Asia. That’s not an issue in Switzerland, they recycle properly. ‘As a chemical company we can work on biodegradability and recycling,’ he says. ‘We’re focused on what we can do to help make things better. There are some proper challenges here.’
Ahead lie more biking challenges, too. But first there’s the Americas Cup. His Team Ineos is challenging for the world’s greatest yachting trophy in 2021. Britain has never won it, despite founding the competition over 150 years ago. ‘The race will be down in New Zealand, so hopefully we can organise a biking adventure round there,’ he muses. The sun’s cooling. It’s time for us to head home. Chippy in the van with the bikes, me in the missus’s car, and Jim and George by helicopter to an evening function. It’s a whole other life on Planet Jim. Let’s hope we get some decent real-world biking gear out of it.