Story: Transcribed and edited from an interview with Peter Drakeford in 2007. Photos: Rob Lewis, Bob Cann, Flood archives, OBA archives.
These days, monocularity (the state of having vision in only one eye) virtually debars anyone from gaining a licence to compete in motor sport. Yet arguably Australia’s greatest road racer of the immediate post-war era and the early ‘fifties, Harry Hinton, lost the sight of his left eye when only 21 years of age, and went on to race in the Norton works team. Manx Grand Prix winner Austin Monks also had just one working eye, as did John Kidson, who won the 1977 Formula Three TT. Australian Speedway legend Bob Sharp was another with 50% vision, and here’s a further one-eyed gun rider with a list of motorcycling achievements as long as your arm – Bert Flood.
In Bert’s case, the loss of the eye was a result of recklessness as a child of just 4 years of age when he lived at Hesket in the Macedon Ranges, north west of Melbourne. “I was going to bring the cows up for milking and a bottle was on the ground so I picked it up and threw it at a big rock. A piece of the bottle came back and hit me in the eye. All the fluid went out of my eye and it turned grey. We were miles from doctors so someone ran to a neighbour who had a car and took me to Woodend. The doctor took one look and said ‘you’re going to Melbourne’. I remember this ride to Melbourne in this tourer car, freezing cold. We got to Melbourne and went to the Eye Hospital where there was a doctor called Anderson. He took a look and said ‘It’s buggered’ and I had three operations but couldn’t save the eye so they took it out. When I was 20 something I got a job at Radio Corp Astor. I was in the model shop and to get the job I had to have a medical – eyes as well. The bloke doing the examination was the same Doctor Anderson. He said ‘I remember you. In those days I was young and enthusiastic and I thought I would save your eye. Nowadays we could have done it easily’. “
Albert Edgar Flood was born on 31st May, 1929 at Mooroopna, central Victoria, the son of a sheep station manager on a 10,000 acre property near Keynton. The Flood family moved to Epping, Werribee, St Kilda and then to Blackburn, where young Bert was able to indulge his passion for aircraft and flying. “My father worked for the Commonwealth Aircraft Company and in the war we were close to Point Cook and there were heaps of Avro Cadet training aircraft and Hawker Demon biplane fighters. The training planes were forever coming down – forced landings. We’d run for miles to see them on the ground, touch them and steal parts. Aircraft were always a fascination and I started making models. My elder brother Jacob was in the Air Force.”
Although aircraft would later play a major role in his life, it was motorcycles that first captured his imagination. “Ivan Tighe got me into motorcycles. We went to a scramble at Templestowe near Heidleburg on our pushbikes. I saw this motorcycle race and that was it. I couldn’t believe how these blokes came up to the corners and seem to go faster than they were going on the straight. All it was – this is how much I knew – they changed down gears to go around corners! My brother Jacob had a 125 Royal Enfield Flying Flea, and he and his mate Brian O’Sullivan tuned it up to fever pitch. Brian was an electrical engineer – he had the first the CD ignition back in 1949. It had big voltage but not a big spark like the first Femsa ignitions, so we used a magneto and it was quicker than Eric Walsh’s Bantams, and I was a lot younger than him. They tuned up the Enfield to run on methanol but neither of them wanted to ride it so I rode it at a scramble at Colchester Road, Lilydale. Eric Walsh was there on his BSA Bantam. The 125 races had just begun and Walshy was the main man. I flipped the Flying Flea on the line and there we were pulling the back mudguard out from under the wheel. I eventually got it going – I was quite mad in those days – and I caught and passed Walshy on the last corner and beat him to the line. After the race he came and said ‘You didn’t leave me much bloody room there did you?’ I said, ‘no I didn’t intend to’. The sales manager from Finlays (the BSA agents) Bert Kennedy was there and after the race he said to me, “Why are you riding that Royal Enfield, you should be on a Bantam”. I was cheeky and I said, “OK, give me one.” He said, “Gordon Tizer’s not doing much with his one,” so they got that back and gave it to me.”
“I took it home and pulled it to bits and had a look at the barrel. Stan Evans in Elizabeth Street was the AMAL agent, and also JAP agent, and in his window he had this big 1 3/16” TT carby with a clip-on fitting. I thought ‘that looks terrific’ – I had to have that, but the port on the barrel was less than one inch on the outside, so I cut all that off and made up a steel inlet port and got Neil Street’s old man to bronze weld the steel port onto the cast iron barrel. I only had a file to match the ports. The inlet was oval and the exhaust was elliptical and that was a saving grace because it never broke rings because being that shape, the rings had a lead in and a lead out and made my bike reliable.”
“The only mechanical knowledge I had was Phil Irving’s book Tuning for Speed. Street’s old man also welded up the aluminium cylinder head which had a spark plug angled in the back, so I put it in the centre so we could turn the cylinder head out by putting it on a bar with a thread on it and turning it in the lathe. I had a mate up the road named Len Lee and he machined out the cylinder head. There was a scrambles race on at Keilor and it was the night before when I fired it up at home. All the neighbours’ lights went on like The Flintstones! It had a full exhaust with a megaphone that I made – I didn’t know anything about exhausts. I took it down my front drive and it went like a rocket until quarter throttle, then nothing. I realised that I had petrol jets in it, not methanol jets, and it pinged its head off. I measured the compression – 22.0:1 and I thought, ‘that’s a bit high’ so I took it back to Len and he took some more material out until it was 14.7:1 I got to bed after midnight and on the way to Keilor the next day Merv Cooper opened up his shop for us and I bought an 800 main jet. Everyone in the trade knew that this young idiot had bought this huge carby off Stan Evans – I was the talk of the town! We pulled out the old jets and put the new ones in, put the fuel in it and went for a quick ride up the road. It went like a rocket! I went out in practice and Eric Walsh was there and he rode for Finlay’s. He had a 500 BSA and the Bantam and he was out on the 500 and I went out ahead of him and it took 3 laps for him to get past me. We went out in the first 125 race; only 3 laps and I won by half a lap, not even trying – beat Walsh on his Bantam – then I went out in the 250 race and beat Duncan Smith, who was the 250 Champion at the time. Then I went out in the 500 C grade and I was heading off Ray Cresp’s Triumph until I couldn’t get second gear and I finished up 2nd to him. So Walshie went back to Finlay’s shop on Monday and everyone there was giving him buggery and that really made him wild. There were all saying, ‘What are you doing, letting a bloody kid beat you?’ So he didn’t like me from then on. Everything’s a fluke that happens to me. I knew stuff-all about anything, but I had the enthusiasm.”
“Phil Irving had just come back from England and George Lynn was the Green Horror (Australian Motor Cycle News, the fortnightly newspaper) man and those two were at this scramble and Irving came up to me afterwards and said ‘I’ve just come back from Europe and I’ve seen the tiddlers over there and they go nothing like yours. What did you do?’ I said, ‘I read your book.’ He said, ‘I wrote nothing about 2 strokes in that book,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, but it’s the same thing anyway’, and we were mates ever since.”
Bert’s star was on the rise, and he won race after race, from scrambles to hill climbs and road races, against Victoria top riders. But the acidic relationship between him and Walsh eventually forced him out of Finlay’s and out of the seat of the Bantam he had developed into a consistent winner. Before he returned the Bantam to Finlay’s he made sure he ‘modified’ the TT carburettor with some secret ‘extra holes’, rendering it useless! He was 21, freshly married, and broke. The Bantam’s replacement was a racing B Series Lambretta owned by Jack Walters, a well-off motel owner and former racer, from Bendigo. With some of Bert’s demon tweaks, the ungainly scooter became a formidable contender, and he won first time out at Woodside, South Australia. Inevitably, he had a fall-out with Walters, but managed to retrieve his modified bits before he returned the Lambretta.
“I enjoyed all sorts of racing. I first rode speedway when Fred Tracey took over (at Maribyrnong Speedway) and got fastest time of the night – bounced off the fence a few times. Then I decided to buy a JAP off Harold Tapscott and went to Rowley Park, Adelaide where I got beaten by a chap who had just come back from England.”
After a break of 3 or 4 years due to a lack of funds and the arrival of first child Gary, a friend provided him with a ride for the 125 class – a Francis Barnett. “I rode that in races everywhere, in scrambles firstly and I had the usual success on that. At one scramble the frame was broken, so I put tape over it so the machine examiners wouldn’t see it but on the last lap I cartwheeled it and knocked myself out. The ambulance blokes came over and looked in my crook eye and thought I was dead. So they waved to the ambulance but when they picked me up they decided I wasn’t dead, just unconscious and took me to Geelong Hospital. In 1956 I took the Francis Barnett to the Darley road races. The Villiers ignition wasn’t worth a pinch. So I got an aircraft magneto from the disposals and it had 4 sparks per rev so I made a couple of sprockets and geared it down so it had one spark per rev. I bolted it on the front down tube and drove it with a chain. It was so clumsy. Eric Walsh was selling his “world beating Bantam” to a bloke in NSW (Noel Gardiner) who came down to see it race and collect it after the meeting. Trevor Pound was riding the Bantam. I had the power to pass him but I knew the brakes weren’t too good. I got right up close to him coming into the straight and I got a real good run coming into the Esses and passed him going up the straight. So there was this bloke looking at his 300 quid Bantam, which was the same price as a Manx Norton at the time getting burnt off by this shitty looking Francis Barnett.”
When Jack Findlay left for Europe, Bert acquired his well-worn Manx Norton, but as well as bikes, he dabbled in car racing, along with his close mate Ray Owen. The fairly crude looking car was constructed by Jack Godbehear, the chassis being basically an undercarriage leg from an Avro Anson aircraft. Initially it had a 1929 Rudge engine, then a BSA Gold Star, a Speedway JAP, and finally, the engine from the Manx. Despite the rugged looks, the little car performed well, and Bert enjoyed considerable success in hill climbs and at circuits like Fishermen’s Bend and Sandown Park.
But if there is one marque with which Bert – and indeed the Flood family – are synonymous, it is Bultaco. In the early ‘sixties, Bultaco engines were imported by the Downe brothers, who were successful motorcycle people. “Bert Downe was a scrambles rider and a very good engineer with a very clean and tidy factory in Box Hill. Harry Downe was a speedway rider and had an engineering shop as well with his son. Laurie Downe, who was a saw miller with plenty of money, was a big strong bloke who was a mechanic for them, and they built a go kart track at Whittlesea. The engine to have for a go kart was a McCulloch but they wanted to be different. Laurie went to Spain and saw the Bulto people and secured the agency for their engines. They were all keen on the Bultacos but they never really had any success with them. I don’t really know why. I had just put a Montesa engine into my Bantam frame and that went pretty good. The Montesa in a go kart would rev to 10,000 but in a bike would only rev to 9,000. All I can think of was the diameter of the wheels. So they gave me a 125 Bultaco and I put that in the frame and the first two races were over the Christmas break and New Year’s Day 1963 was Winton. The first race was at McNamara Park where I should have won but the gear lever fell off. Then we go to Mallala. Ken Rumble was there with a new Honda (a CR93 owned by Jack Walters) and he was going pretty good, but in practice I tucked in behind him and I thought, ‘I could eat this thing’. In the race I was running second to him and on the last lap there was a left hand corner with a head wind straight. He didn’t do a good job of the left hander whereas I had a good run out of it, so I had a much better run into the head wind than he did. His front wheel came right up on me at the end of the straight but I beat him around the corner and a couple more corners and to the finish line. Then I went out in the 250 race and I got 3rd riding the 125 in the Bantam frame. After the 125 race the officials wanted to measure the bike, they thought it was a 200, so they sealed it all up. Jack Walters was the one who wanted it measured. I made them measure the stroke down the plug hole, then I took the head off and turned the piston slightly so they couldn’t see the ports. Then they measured the bore and found it was a 125. After that we went to Winton and I got another bad start and Carruthers beat me but only just.”
Although the chassis was the best part of 20 years old, the Bultaco engine gave Bert a new lease of life that continued into 1963. “Jim Redman was riding at Hume Weir and I had a new cylinder head made at the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. I got to know them real well. They were interested in the project and we became friends. The manager of the foundry used to charge me for the materials but not the labour. I had this special head made up for Hume Weir which I called the Redder Head because I was going to beat Redman. I was really happy with it in practice but we left the back brake anchor undone and the nut came off it and the back wheel locked and down I went. I hit a concrete post which put a big dent in my crash helmet and knocked me out and I broke my ankle when I fell off, so I didn’t beat Redman!”
In November 1964, the formerly prestigious Australian TT was controversially switched from Phillip Island to the tiny Calder circuit, and was boycotted by most interstaters on a rain-swept day, but Bert and the Bultaco cleaned up the 125 title with ease. Soon after he repeated the feat to win the Tasmanian 125 TT at Symmons Plains and headed to Bathurst confident of extending the circuit’s maestro Kel Carruthers. “I was able to ding dong with Carruthers (on a CR93) and I passed him up Mountain Straight but he passed me over the top. On the last lap over Skyline we came on this lapped rider; Kel went to the right of him and I had to go to the left but I locked the front brake and went into the Armco. I tried to get to my bike but didn’t realise my bone was hanging out of my leg. After Bathurst I went to Winton and in the 250 race I was behind Kel’s Honda 250-4. I went to go outside of him but I got into a full locker and it pitched me over the bars and once again knocked me out. After that I never came good. I rode and I won races because of my bike but I couldn’t ride.”
As well as racing the now-venerable Bantam/Bultaco, Bert began importing and selling the brand when the Downe brothers relinquished the agency. The deal involved Bert making a trip to Barcelona. “The factory was fantastic, they had 100 motorcycles in the yard covered with tarps because they had nowhere else to put them. It was raining when I was there and they had buckets catching water coming through the roof. Old man Bulto spoke good English and his sons were educated and spoke English. Juan Bulto became the export manager later and was out here for a Calder meeting and Dick Read jumped on my bike with no practice and beat everyone and that really impressed him. On the last lap, Read unscrewed the front brake adjuster so he couldn’t win -because he was riding for Ron Angel on Kawasakis.”
As Bert eased out of riding duties a number of others gained a ride, including Bill Horsman, Ginger Molloy and motocross rider Graham Smith, known to all as ‘Smythe’. At the 1969 Australian Grand Prix at Phillip Island, Smith took over Bert’s 4-speed 125 and caused a major upset by defeating Kel Carruthers (on Jack Gates’ 6-speed Bultaco) to win. Smith was a true all-rounder, in all facets of the sport and on all sized bikes, despite being a hefty build. Smith rode for Bert for a number of seasons and won the prestigious King of the Weir in 1971 on Bert’s air-cooled 350cc Bultaco.
Bert was immensely proud of the achievements of his sons Gary and Trevor, known, in true Flood fashion, as Mergatroyd and Herman respectively. Eldest son Gary, born in 1952, had a rocket-like rise through the motocross ranks. “I didn’t believe in sponsorship – you had to earn it. Mergatroyd (Gary) got a Rickman Bultaco – he had to buy it – and first time out he won on it at Packenham. He’d work after school at the boat shop in Blackburn – he knew more than they did about engines. Then the red 5-speed Pursang came out and he wanted one of those, so he sold the Metisse. The two boys were banned for riding underage because we put their ages up. Herman (Trevor) couldn’t ride till the next year. Gary’s first meeting on the red bike was at Christmas Hills and he won the 250 and All Powers from Geoff Taylor. The next meeting a couple of months later (November 1969) was the Australian Titles in Tasmania. I had a new ute and he had just turned 17 so I let him drive down and bugger me, he ran into the back of a woman doing a right hand turn – it was his fault. I said, ‘That’s it!’ because there was water pissing out of the radiator, and I said, ‘we’re not going now’. Then a bloke named Coleman came along who had a panel beating shop and said, “I have one of those radiators, I’ll get it for you’. We put it in and we just got to the boat as they were closing the lid. It was a lucky break. He was a bit of a fat schoolboy in those days and that’s why he looked like Mergatroyd. He had a 125 and a 250 and he won the whole programme – 125, 250, 500 and Unlimited. There was Bob Voumard and Dave Basham from South Australia, Matt Daley from NSW, Graeme Smythe from WA and lots of other good riders. He won the 125 race without blinking and in the 250 race he just went away from them. He hadn’t done any practice but he just cruised away from them. That sent people rushing to my door to buy Bultacos. Gary still had to buy his bikes, or I may have given him one. He didn’t care because he always got it at a good price and sold it for a profit.”
Younger son Trevor was also a prodigious talent and naturally began on Bultacos, but he and Bert clashed often and soon Trevor left the fold to race Yamaha, CZ, Husqvarna and later Maicos. The intra-family rivalry was not just confined to the race track. “Herman had a Dino Ferrari and I had a Ferrari Daytona – year model was 1974, the last right hand drive Daytona made. We used to have a derby and the Dino could keep up but when I got into 3rd gear the Daytona would just pull away. I blew the clutch out in one of the derbies in Springvale Road.”
Indeed, Bert simply couldn’t get the need for speed out of his veins. In April 1976, on a stretch of the Northern Highway near Rochester, Victoria, Bert took his highly successful 350 Bultaco to a new Australian Land Speed Record of 152.027 mph (244.664 km/h), narrowly breaking Bryan Hindle’s mark from 1973. Bert’s time established new records for the Unlimited, 1000cc, 750cc, 500cc and 350cc, but it was a close-run thing as the engine seized after one run and was rebuilt on the side of the road. On (or in) Bert’s 125cc Bultaco streamliner, Charlie Stewart established new records for the 125cc, 175cc and 250cc classes with an average speed of 115.237 mph.
When Bultaco went bust, Bert needed to find a replacement. “Comerfords (in London) were the UK Bultaco agents and the manager there introduced me to the export manager for KTM at a motocross meeting in England. I went to the KTM factory and John Kirkpatrick in WA was going to be the KTM agent for Australia and he ordered a whole four bikes – so I ordered a container full – about 20 bikes – and I then became the KTM dealer for Australia wide. This was about ’77 or ’78.” There were other dabbles in motorcycle importation, including Can-Am, but gradually Bert drifted away from bikes to concentrate on light aircraft, his life having come the full circle. He became the Australasian and South East Asian distributor for Rotax aero engines, a business that is carried on today by Gary. Inside the factory in Melbourne are a number of Bert’s bikes, including his favourite 350 racer that is currently undergoing a full restoration.
Bert Flood passed away in February 2009, aged 79, after suffering from emphysema for some time. Bert was a true larrikin, an immensely talented rider and tuner, and a bloke never afraid to speak his mind.