The Australian Land Speed Record was a challenge that captivated Col Crothers for most of his life. It was a big task but Col was never afraid of a challenge.
Throughout his long life, ‘Honest Col’ Crothers was never one to back away from stoushes of the verbal and physical nature, and was embroiled in plenty of court cases to do with his numerous business and sporting interests. Col was not a man to be trifled with, and applied the same nail-hard approach to his sporting endeavours as he did to business. When he died in 2005, just short of his 87th birthday he was a millionaire many times over, but his earthy pragmatism and the resilience of the self-made man remained to the end. In 1998, aged 81, he refused to undertake an age-related test for his motorcycle licence and lost the right to ride any of the numerous motorcycles in the collection that was precious to him, although he was still able to drive his Rolls Royce. “The Transport Department wanted me to be tested on a motor bike by a qualified bloke, but who could be more qualified than me? I told the bloke behind the counter that I had been riding since 1934, was a former motorcycle racer for Ariel Motors, and was once the fastest bloke in Australia…he wasn’t too impressed and I told them to stick their bloody licence,” the feisty octogenarian said, and he meant every word.
Col Crothers was born in 1917 at Parramatta. His father owned and ran some of the earliest transport trucks, big old open-cabin jobs, and conducted his business mainly between Church Street Parramatta, where the family lived, and Penrith in the west. At every opportunity, young Col went along for the ride. His earliest brush with motorcycles was at the one-mile Penrith Speedway, where his father was a keen competitor. Before he reached his teens both his parents had passed away, and he spent his teenage years living with relatives. When the war came Col found himself in Newcastle, working on military Harley-Davidsons, and on relocation to Sydney post-war he found work with the Ariel distributors Eric Moore, in Sydney’s Wentworth Avenue. His ability as a rider was rewarded with sponsored rides on Ariels on Sydney Miniature TT tracks. Before long, he left Moore’s with an Ariel agency in his pocket and opened his own dealership, back in home territory at Parramatta.
Wheeling and dealing in motorcycles was his life, but it was his ability to acquire, and hold onto property that made him more than comfortable in the financial sense. Col’s motorcycle business in the 1950s was initially based at 1 Church Street Parramatta, with neighbouring shops run by small businesses like hairdressers and shoe retail and repairs. As the business expanded, he would acquire an adjacent site, always retaining ownership of the previous one, and ultimately owned a string of property fronting Church Street. Today, this is a blue-chip address in the motor trade that occupies the precinct, and is still in family hands. ‘Honest Col Crothers’ sold Ariel, Royal Enfield, BSA and Ariel, and Col became a key figure in the development of industry in the booming Parramatta region. The area was a hot-spot of motor sport, with Parramatta Park hosting road racing and Cumberland Oval holding regular Speedway meetings. In 1954, with partners Kevin Forrest and Billy Laird, he opened Westmead Speedway which ran until the mid-1960s. But it was the Australian Land Speed Record that really occupied his thoughts. At the time, in the early 1950s, competition for the record, on both motorcycles and in cars, was intense, and highly prestigious. In a see-sawing battle, the motorcycle record (which was also then outright record, eclipsing the car time) went to Jack Ehret in early 1953, before being beaten by West Australian Harry Gibson in. Both were mounted on Vincent-HRDs, Gibson’s fitted with telescopic forks. Crothers wasn’t impressed, reckoning he could easily surpass Gibson’s mark given the right conditions.
His choice of machine was not unnaturally a Vincent HRD, but it wasn’t the latest model by any means. A well-worn B-Series Rapide with girder forks was procured, and entrusted to Col’s close friend Wal Hawtry, a self-taught engineer of remarkable skill and nous and a handy racer himself. A simple nose shield was the only front streamlining used, although the rear of the machine was encased in a hand-beaten aluminium shell. Inside the engine, the flywheel assembly was re-designed by enlarging the crankpin to 1 1/8” to make for a more rigid assembly. Caged roller big ends with oversized rollers replaced the plain un-caged type, and cams of the same profile in the Lightning used. Pushrods made from electron tubing provided a 4 ounce saving in an important area. The Rapide heads, valves and springs were left standard apart from opening the inlet ports to 1 7/32”.
The first task was to find a suitable stretch of road that could be closed off for record attempts, and this was far from easy, especially in New South Wales, where the police were utterly opposed to motor sport in any shape or form. But Col wasn’t worried about the police, saying he would see them in court if necessary, as it turned out to be. Identifying a stretch of road 35 km out of Wagga Wagga towards Narrandera on the Sturt Highway, he applied for permission to have the road closed and was not surprisingly refused by the police. The local authorities were as disappointed as Col, seeing the record attempt as a boon to recognition of their area, so true to his word, Col took the police to court, claiming their refusal was illegal.
Col must have been confident of the outcome of the appeal, which was heard in Wagga Wagga Court on March 9th 1954, because he attended the hearing with his Vincent on a trailer parked outside! Something had gone amiss in the communications department however, because the case had been deferred for two weeks. On March 23rd it was finally heard, and to the great chagrin of the police, the verdict went Col’s way, with the highway to be closed between the hours of 6.30 am and 7.30 am and on March 28. Well before daylight, Col and his Vincent were set up on the road, ready for the record attempt over the flying quarter mile. Hours earlier, local identity Jack Skeers, aided by Sydney men Ken Carroll, Barry Huckle and Sid Napier, had laid out the quarter mile of electric cable and set the trip gear. Unfortunately, the enormous local publicity generated by the court case resulted in a massive spectator turnout, in cars, on motorcycles and on horseback, which rather complicated things. But containing the enthusiasts was, as it turned out, the least of Col’s worries.
Crothers had had a special tight-fitting one-piece leather suit made, but when the time came to slip into them on the evening prior to the record attempt, he found the task impossible. Local seamstresses worked overnight to make changes, but it was still necessary to tip two tins of talcum powder in before he could slither inside!
To monitor to the run, the Auto Cycle Union of NSW had sent its official timekeeping team, led by its president Ray White. The timing equipment consisted of trip wires at either end of the run over the measured quarter mile (Harry Gibson’s time had been set over 400 metres) connected to a timing device. Col planned to do up to six return runs, building up to speed as he monitored the conditions, which included coping with hazards such as flocks of galahs that favoured settling on the warm tarmac. In the very first run, he cruised through the traps at 148.9 mph which was officially noted as the first part of the record, requiring a return run in the opposite direction to seal the record at a canter. Then it all went pear-shaped. Spectators had spilled onto the road and had to be herded back by Carroll before the next run could commence, wasting valuable time. As he flashed over the opening wire to commence the return run, a young lad scrambled up the bank for a better view, and in doing so fell over the contact lines linking the timing device to the trip meter, rendering the run useless. These first two passes had been intended as test runs on soft spark plus, so with hard plugs fitted, Col prepared to try again. With the Vincent now operating at full power, he did another three runs, each obviously faster than the previous, and on each occasion the timing equipment completely failed. To add insult to injury, the front tyre punctured as he decelerated from over 150 mph on the final run, although he was able to bring the machine to a standstill without losing control. With their allotted time elapsed and the highway due to be re-opened to normal traffic, Col and Wal had to admit defeat.
Despite the fact that the record remained unbroken, Crothers had demonstrated that the potential was there. Brassed off but undeterred, Col announced a second attempt, this time on what he considered to be a better stretch of road near Narrabri in north-western NSW. And once again, the police blocked the attempt, so back to court went a fiercely- determined Col Crothers. While Col was fighting the legal battles, Wal Hawtry was working his magic in the tuning department, developing a hand-beaten aluminium nose, tail and under-engine fairing to aid aerodynamics. Again, the battle went before the local court, and again, it was Crothers the victor over the establishment, receiving the verdict in his favour on 10th December and immediately setting 19th December 1954 as the record-attempt date, between the hours of 4.30-5.30 am when the highway would be officially closed to normal traffic. The longer usable length of the Narrabri road allowed Crothers to attempt not only the Flying Quarter Mile, but Mile and Half Miles as well.
The debacle of the failed timing equipment at Wagga had left Col resolved that it would not happen again, and to this end he engaged the watch firm of J. Farren Price to provide an ‘Electric Eye’ timing device, valued at seven hundred pounds. The ever-dogmatic ACU insisted that their equipment, consisting of manual stopwatches linked to an electronic timer, would be the official method, although the Electric Eye was brought along as well. But despite all the assurances, the timing situation once again descended in a farce. Of the eight runs made, only five were successfully recorded by the ACU equipment, which failed constantly, as it had done in Wagga. The Electric Eye equipment was reluctantly pressed into service to time the one-mile attempts, but this too failed because of a lack of people to man it. Once a flock of galahs set off the gear by flying through the timing beam just prior to Crothers coming over the line, another time an official walked in front of the beam, and on a third occasion the tow car passed through the beam just before Crothers. Yet despite the chaos in the timing, and the fact that the best runs of over 160 mph went unrecorded, Crothers did manage to break the existing marks for the quarter, half and mile flying times. His fastest one-mile time was an average of 151.51 mph, with a slower return producing an average of 146.4 mph, while over the quarter mile, his average was 147.54 mph, to break Gibson’s time of 144.92 mph. After his very first run at 152.54 mph for the quarter, which took just 5.9 seconds, Crothers turned the Vincent around and blasted through even faster, only to have the timing equipment fail. Time and again one run would be recorded, only for the timing gear to pack up on the return run, but with time running out and the police determined to re-open the road at the appointed time, a pair of runs was finally put together and the record was Col’s. Coated with blood and feathers from deceased galahs and with a dead bird jammed in the cowling, Col returned to the base to hearty applause. It had taken two years and a not inconsiderable amount of money, but Crothers was quick to hand credit to Hawtry. “ All I had to do, “ he told the well-wishers, “was to point the machine at the end of the road and hang on. “
Yet he was still unsatisfied, knowing that he had been denied an even faster time through no fault of his own, and announced soon after that he would make a further attempt at a venue to be announced. His resolve was strengthened when David McKay set a time of 143.1 mph in his Aston Martin sports car in 1957, which was trumpeted by his sponsors, Ampol, as being a new Australian record. It well may have been, for cars, but was some 3.3 mph shy of Crothers’ time. That situation resolved itself in September 1957 at the BP-sponsored record attempts at Barradine, near Coonabarabran when Ted Gray’s Corvette-engine single-seater, the Tornado, pushed the outright mark to 157.7 mph (253.8 km/h), while Jack Forrest, on his 500 cc Rennsport BMW, raised the motorcycle mark to 149.068 mph (239.9 km/h).
In August 1958 at the Sydney Motor Show, the same Hawtry-tuned Vincent was displayed, but now clad in a striking new fully-enveloping white-painted shell, with the announcement that Lake Eyre in central Australia would be the venue. The shell, beaten from light alloy sheet was the work of Stan ‘Nooge’ Smith, and inside the shell the original Vincent HRD engine was mated to an all-new frame built by Sid Napier in his workshops in Surry Hills. “No one knew much about streamlining back then, “ Col said in an interview in 1998, “ but they (motorcycle streamlining) were all shaped like fish, which meant they would start to weave at high speed, and if the wind got you, you were gone. Ours we built wider and flatter, which meant it might fall over, but it wouldn’t weave.” The whole machine now stood only 26 inches (66 cm) high and stood on 18 inch wheels shod with Avon Racing tyres especially imported from England. A 2.2:1 final drive ratio was fitted with a view to a 200 mph-plus top speed. In late December the machine was given a short two-way run at a secret (from the police) location west of Sydney, and all Crothers would say was that he had easily exceeded Forrest’s time. In late April he and Wal took the streamlined Vincent to Coonabarabran for another slightly illegal test, the pairing returning well satisfied that on the vast expanses of Lake Eyre, the record would easily fall to them.
But one thing they had not counted on was the weather. After many dry years, central Australia copped major rainfall that ruled out any attempts for at least twelve months. Months turned into years and it was mid-1961 before the pair set out for the now-dry lake. Towing the Vincent on an open trailer behind a Vanguard station wagon, Hawtry and Crothers arrived at Lake Eyre, confident that their slippery projectile could exceed 200 mph. This time they were not constrained by public road closures and police, and took their time to work up to the attempt.
“I was the first one (record attempt) on Lake Eyre, “ said Col. “It had a perfect surface. We got there a week before the timekeepers and we laid a black line for over a mile to give us something to follow. I did a few runs just in a pair of underpants and no crash helmet. We did away with the gearbox and just ran top gear like a speedway bike, so we had to tow it up to 85 mph, but when you dropped the clutch at that speed it would lift the front wheel. Anyway we had about a three mile run up and we had our own timing gear and I did 174 mph, one way, which wasn’t far behind the world record of 185 mph.”
When the official timing gear arrived everything appeared to be operating smoothly and preparations were made for the first official run, but just as the bike entered the timed area the engine burnt a hole in one piston, and debris found its way into the oil pump. Hawtry and Crothers briefly considered their options, including trying to run the engine with a total loss oiling system to bypass the pump, before deciding to shelve the attempt, but vowed to return as soon as possible. Deeply disappointed, the pair headed for home, but during the long trip Hawtry began to complain of dizziness and head pains. On return to Sydney he was admitted to hospital but died soon after from a brain tumor. Hawtry’s death knocked the wind out of Col’s sails. “Wal was a genius, the most brilliant chap I knew. I seemed to lose a lot of interest when he died,” said Col in later years.
Yet as recently as 1973, when he was 56 years of age, Crothers announced that he was rebuilding the Vincent and would return to Lake Eyre “within two years” to complete what he regarded as unfinished business. By this stage he had retired and built a house with an extensive workshop to tinker with his collection of bikes. But the return to Lake Eyre never happened and, nearly seven years after his death, the old Vincent still sits in the workshop in the condition it last ran. The original full fairing, minus the nose cone, is still with the bike, and Col’s leathers and helmet hang on the wall behind the bike. Col’s grandson Ray is a big fan of his grandfather’s achievements and is determined that the Vincent will remain just the way it is in memory of ‘Honest Col’ – for three years, the fastest man in Australia.