Tom Penton was a leading off-road competitor of the 1960s and ‘70s. Along with winning national enduro events in the U.S. and Canada, Penton represented the USA in the International Six Day Trials (later renamed International Six Day Enduro) nine times. He scored Gold Medals in six of those events, becoming one of the leading riders in the early years of American participation in the prestigious international competition. Penton was also known for his innovative design work with Penton Motorcycle (named after his father John Penton, who founded the company). Penton is credited with designing the folding shift and brake lever, which helped solve the constant problem of breaking levers, the bane to many a rider.
Penton was born in Berea, Ohio, in 1950 and raised in nearby Amherst. Brought up in a motorcycling family, Tom began riding at 14 when he and his brother, Jeff, shared a Yamaha 125 for a Christmas present.
“It was a road motorcycle,” Tom explained of the Yamaha. “It had road tires, but we didn’t care, we rode it off-road. About a year later, I got a Honda 90. When my dad’s dealership took on Suzuki, I got a 120cc Suzuki Bearcat and that was the first motorcycle I raced when I was about 15 or 16.”
Between railroad rights of way, farm fields and unfinished interstate construction sites, Tom was able to piece together practice riding areas, even though he lived in a semi-suburban setting. Tom began racing in local enduro and scrambles events and was pleasantly surprised with his results.
“I was racing the smaller bikes and I surprised myself by being able to run with a lot of the riders I’d looked up to for years,” he said. “Being in the top 10 or even top five in many events on the smaller motorcycle and being so young, I don’t know how I was able to do it.”
Tom joined the Air Force after graduating from high school. He served in Vietnam for a year, but was granted leave several times while in the service to race in bigger events, including a couple of International Six Days.
He was also stationed in California during his service. While there, he got to ride a considerable amount in the mountains of Southern California. Riding in the completely different environment of Southern California served Penton well when he returned to racing in earnest after his military service.
“I think my time riding in California bridged a gap in my riding,” Penton said. “I think it made me a more well-rounded rider, having grown up racing in the woods of the East and then having the opportunity to ride in more mountainous, rocky and drier regions out West.”
Prior to going into the Air Force, Penton specialized in riding small 125cc displacement off-road motorcycles, often finishing in the top three overall on the much less powerful machines. In 1974, Penton began racing 250cc bikes and earned his first overall victory in a national enduro in Lawrence, Kansas. In a Six Day Qualifier on the West Coast, Penton got second overall in a special test, proving he was more than just a deep woods rider. He took class and overall wins in numerous enduro events, including the Pachaug Enduro, in Connecticut.
One of Penton’s all-time favorite events was the big annual Canadian off-road event called the Corduroy Enduro, a race he won twice.
“I reflect back fondly at that lovely countryside and warm people north of Toronto,” Tom said. “I loved the crispness in the air, the wonderful foliage, the fine soil, the winding roads and the somewhat foreign ambiance.
“The Gold Rock Lodge was where it was happening, and my Uncle Ted was at the center of those 'happenings' (partying). Uncle Ted was always glad to add some hoopla to the motorcycling scene when the other of us Pentons might have been too serious about things.
“My first win at the Corduroy was 1973. I remember it well because it was the week before the Massachusetts ISDT. Carl Cranke and I decided to ride, whereas many others didn’t want to chance it because of possible injury and or time needed for preparation for the ISDT. But Carl and I went for it and drove together in a van to Canada. I stayed within range of him throughout the two days but he had me legitimately beat going into the final special test. That year the Corduroy had for the first time an Observed Trials final special test. So I was able to plunk my trusty 125 Penton Six Days up and down the five mph course without dabbing. Carl brought his 250 Hare Scrambler (with his renowned cylinder work for that dazzling horsepower, geared up for those open corduroy and gravel roads) to the 'starting line' with dread in his eyes: his worst fears realized! The dabs came fast and furious, and his overall win went with them. It was a cold ride from the Canadian woods to Massachusetts.”
The invention of the folding shift and brake lever came after he bent his shift lever on a palmetto tree while practicing in Florida.
“It was a nice day and I was sitting there looking at the lever before I was going to try to bend it back into place and it just hit me, maybe I could devise a way for the levers to fold and then spring back,” Tom said.
The first folding levers he built operated with a rubber band. The rubber band was a piece of an old inner tube that provided adequate strength to hold the end on and allow it to spring back when it hit something. It was a brilliantly simple mechanism. Unfortunately for Tom, no thought was given to patents at the time and another company copied Penton’s idea and patented the folding levers.
Penton’s history in the ISDT dated back to 1968. At just 18 years old, he competed in the event held at San Pellegrino, Italy, and scored a Silver medal in his inaugural outing. Tom scored his first Gold in the 1970 ISDT held in El Escorial, Spain.
In 1971, Penton made a memorable trip, taking leave from the Air Force while serving in Vietnam, to travel to the Isle of Man to compete in that year’s ISDT. He raced a factory special 125cc Penton, which had a “light switch” power band that he had a tough time getting accustomed to. On the special test, held on a section of the famous Isle of Man TT course, Tom won the road test among 125cc riders, his time even beating many riders on larger displacement bikes.
Penton went on to score another Gold that year in England.
Tom scored a third ISDT Gold in 1974 in El Escorial, Spain, and again in 1976 in Zeltweg, Austria.
His best performance in the ISDT came in 1977 when the event was held in Czechoslovakia. There, Penton was the top-scoring American and one of only two Americans (Dick Burleson being the other) to score Gold Medals in the competition. His performance in Czechoslovakia earned Penton the prestigious AMA Sportsman of the Year Award for 1977 and he was featured on the cover of the American Motorcyclist magazine.
Tom scored his sixth ISDT Gold when he competed in his final event in Sweden in 1978, riding a factory Suzuki entry.
After the ’78 ISDT, Penton decided to retire from racing. His vision of the lightweight off-road motorcycle that you could pick up and carry on your shoulder over logs, which he hoped would inspire the masses to participate in the sport, never materialized. Instead, Penton laments that the sport went the other way with heavier, more powerful machines that were less rider-friendly.
In 2003, Tom enjoyed an ISDT reunion ride with his brothers, Jeff and Jack. He said the brothers got great enjoyment from stopping on the trail and helping other riders. “We all looked at each other and wished we could have done that more while we were racing,” Tom said. “We were always so concerned about winning the races, but I look back now and think the big winners were the riders who stopped to help others along the way.”
Tom now lives in Oregon. He and wife, Julie, have two sons, Daniel and Spencer. Most of his time is spent riding recumbent bicycles with his wife, taking hikes, reading, computers, and short rides on his Honda Magna 500cc road bike.