There was a time when sidecars were arguably the most popular class on any road race program. In the late 1940s and 1950s the advent of the big twin Vincent revolutionised the outfit scene in Australia; the sight and sound of the methanol monsters broadsiding though turns and bellowing down the straights had the crowds glued to the fences. But unlike the solos, which produced a string of international stars and grand prix winners, the chairmen – with one notable exception – stayed at home.
Bob Mitchell was a member of the powerful Hartwell MCC in Melbourne, a club filled with big names, including Norton and Moto Guzzi works rider Ken Kavanagh. It was Kavanagh who fostered the young Mitchell’s interest in racing by taking him to meetings and getting him an apprenticeship at Sampson Brothers in Melbourne. He learned well – taking the award as top Apprentice Motorcycle Mechanic in 1951.
Part of his duties involved making deliveries on the firm’s Harley Davidson outfit with box sidecar, a task he relished. With help from his mother, Bob bought a 500 Ariel outfit with a sidecar, which was promptly removed and the bike prepared for solo scrambles racing. But a suggestion to refit the chair came from his school chum Jim Hocking, and soon the pair lined up not only for scrambles, but whatever road racing was to be had on their meagre budget. With typical youthful exuberance, Mitchell’s all-action style was to fling the outfit into corners in a spectacular power slide- a scrambles technique that he soon adapted to the tar.
By 1951, Mitchell was the talk of the town when it came to sidecar racing, and again Kavanagh interceded to assist his fledgling career. Ken supplied some special engine bits for the plunger-framed 500 Manx Norton that Bob’s father had recently purchased, while Sampson Brothers provided a sidecar frame and fairing modelled on the world championship winning Norton of Eric Oliver. Results came almost immediately – Mitchell and Hocking snatching the Australian 600cc Sidecar TT at Little River, outside Melbourne, in December 1952. Only two months later, the pair successfully defended their 600 title at Longford, Tasmania, and finished second to Frank Sinclair’s Vincent in the Senior class.
That ride prompted Sinclair to offer his Vincent to Mitchell for the next meeting at his home track of Darley, and Bob repaid the favour by winning the Unlimited race with ease. For the rest of the year, Mitchell rode both the Vincent and his own Norton to many wins, including the prestigious Easter 1953 Bathurst TT. After winning the Junior Sidecar TT, he hopped aboard the Vincent and staged a memorable battle with Sandy McCrae, who pressured him into a braking mistake on the final corner to snatch the win.
Birmingham or bust
By now Europe was beckoning, and few would argue that Mitchell had the talent to mix it with the best. Once again, the biggest hurdle was finance, but Bob had made up his mind. Jim Hocking however decided against the trip, and went on to take two Australian Sidecar TT wins as a rider (Jim Hocking passed away in Melbourne in July 2004 as a result of complications during an operation).
To replace Hocking , Mitchell recruited Max George, another ex-school mate. The coffers were swelled somewhat by functions held by Hartwell club, and the gift of the sea fare to England from his parents and Ken Kavanagh’s wife Joan. Mitchell knew he needed fresh tackle, so after cashing in virtually everything he owned he had just enough to order a new 500 Manx Norton from the factory in Birmingham. There was precious little cash left by the time the Norton had been fitted with the sidecar chassis used by Cyril Smith to take second place in the 1953 World Championship. Bob and Max also purchased the ex-Post Office Bedford van used in 1953 by Sydney solo rider Keith Bryen, but had to borrow petrol money from works Norton star Ray Amm to get them to their first meeting in Pau in southern France. Their reward was sixth place, a lap adrift, plus the all-important starting money they needed to get back to England. The Norton needed quite a few mods from its standard solo form to be both comfortable and competitive, and gradually the show came together. Thereafter they raced on the Continental almost every weekend, and in their fifth meeting, at Zandvoort in Holland, experienced their first win. The schedule also allowed two starts in World Championship Grands Prix; at Belgium (9th) and Switzerland (7th and first private entrant). With the European season over and 16 meetings under their belt, Mitchell and George found jobs for the English winter while they prepared for the 1955 season. Bob took a position as a mechanic in a garage while Max landed a spot at the BSA factory. During that winter Bob met and married Jean, a secretary who worked at Norton Motors.
What money he had been able to amass over the winter was quickly spent acquiring Cyril Smith’s 1954 sidecar chassis, to which Bob added his own engine and other bits. But unlike the continental outfits, Bob’s Norton carried no streamlining – a distinctive disadvantage on the ultra-fast road circuits of Europe. Bob’s well-used Manx Norton engine was also beginning to show its age, breaking bevel gears regularly and melting pistons because of poor-quality fuel. But it did hold together for the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring on July 26, where he finished in fifth place to become the first Australian to score points in a Sidecar GP. One week later in Spa, the engine expired again and was hastily rebuilt for the Dutch TT at Assen. The only way to procure the precious bevel gears was by normal post from the factory in Birmingham, and these still had not arrived when practice began at Assen. During the winter, Max had built himself a BSA Gold Star Clubman racer while working at the factory, but couldn’t get a solo rider’s licence to race it. Instead Bob would enter the BSA as a ‘start money special’ where ever possible, usually doing just enough laps in the race to earn the cash and learn the circuit better for the sidecar event. At Assen, with the Norton still in bits, Bob went out on the BSA in practice, then rode the bike, with open exhaust and racing numbers, straight into town to collect the vital package containing the Norton gears.
With the Norton repaired, Bob and Max went on to their greatest-yet achievement, 3rd place in the Dutch TT and the first-ever rostrum placing for an Australian team. After a couple more starts in Germany, the pair headed back to England, where they finished the season with a win at the Brough Airfield in Yorkshire. Bob returned to his winter job at the garage and began a major re-design of the outfit, placing the fuel tank in the sidecar nose with a battery and electric fuel pump to feed the carburettor. He also had a full aluminium fairing made that not only added to the Norton’s top speed, but improved the handling by adding weight to the front end. Max George however, couldn’t face another British winter, and went home.
A change in the chair
To replace Max, Bob recruited Eric Bliss, who had ridden with former world champion Eric Oliver in 1955. He also forked out most of his savings on a new 500 Manx Norton engine, which he always regarded as being a dud, with nowhere near the power of his old unit. Nevertheless, the Mitchell/Bliss pairing began the year well at the British events, taking three seconds and a first (at Oulton Park) from four starts in March and April before heading for Europe. After a fourth at St Wendel in France, they headed for Floreffe in Belgium, a 13.5 km street circuit with a multitude of gutter-lined corners. In practice the new engine destroyed itself – virtually nothing was salvageable – but Cyril Smith lent Bob his spare for the race. With very little practice due to the blow-up, Mitchell also had to contend with rain on race day. To memorise the circuit, Bob had noted that there were two large advertising hoardings for Martini near major corners. One was flat out in third gear, the other much tighter. In the race, he admits he got the two mixed up, arriving at the slow corner still on full noise. The result was a near head-on into a tree that destroyed the front end of the Norton and the new fairing, but fortunately without serious injury to rider or passenger. Later in the day, former World 350cc Champion Fergus Anderson, having his first ride for BMW, hit the same tree and was killed.
The crash, and the engine blow up, necessitated a quick trip back to Birmingham. When he arrived he found the Norton works closed by a strike, but Charlie Edwards, one of the head mechanics on the works team, managed to scrounge enough bits from around the workshop to assemble an engine. Ben Willetts of Watsonian Sidecars rebuilt the fairing, and the pair rushed off to catch a boat from Liverpool to the Isle of Man. Bob had hoped to qualify for a grant from the Auto Cycle Council of Australia to help with expenses at the TT, but their representative in UK, Australian former Sunbeam works rider and GP winner Arthur “Digger” Simcock, refused to nominate him, saying he was not up to the standard required! Eric Oliver helped out by paying their entry fee, but it was otherwise slim pickings at what was supposed to be the world’s premier event. Although the ACU of Great Britain forked out wads of cash to attract the European teams, British-based privateers like Mitchell were left out in the cold. Despite the slur, Mitchell and Bliss took confidently to the treacherous ‘Clypse’ circuit (a 17.3 kilometre version of the 60-kilometre ‘Mountain’ TT circuit), and held third place in the race until the clutch refused to disengage, making the process of keeping off the stone walls even trickier. As he battled on, Bob waved English rider Bill Boddice past, then wondered why he had, because he had no trouble staying with him. Still, fourth place was a fine result, particularly after his treatment by the ACCA.
It was the beginning of a purple patch for Mitchell and Bliss, and in the following weeks they finished fourth in the Dutch TT, and third in the Belgian GP at Spa. Things looked good for the German GP at Solitude, until Mitchell strained his back pushing the outfit in the pits and could not start. Finances would not allow for the trip to Ireland for the Ulster GP and then to Italy for the remaining two rounds of the championship. Nevertheless, their results from three GP starts gave them fourth place in the title, an excellent performance given the calibre of the opposition and the paucity of their resources.
By the end of the 1956 season Mitchell faced the prospect of working through another British winter, as well as preparing his increasingly-outdated Norton for battle against the might of the BMW teams. There had been a few carrots dangled by BMW interests to get Bob to switch sides, but nothing had come to fruition, so Bob and Eric decided to go their separate ways. With Jean and his young son Mark, Bob sailed for Australia, with the crated Norton in the hold.
If Bob Mitchell was the class of the field before he went oversees, he was truly peerless on his return. Riding the 500cc Norton (running on pump petrol) against the methanol-burning Vincents, Mitchell, with Max George back in the chair, won 21 races straight. Their victories included the Australian Junior (500cc) and Unlimited Sidecar TTs at Mildura on Boxing Day, 1956, and another double at Bathurst at Easter 1957. At Bathurst, the sidecar classes were combined into one event, and the question on everyone’s lips was whether Mitchell and the Norton could trounce the Mount Panorama maestro Sandy McCrae’s Vincent. From the start, Mitchell bolted away, while McCrae made a shocker. It took McCrae three laps to get onto the tail of the flying Norton, but just as he did his engine seized, leaving Mitchell miles clear of the rest of the field and the winner of both classes.
His run of success was so complete that soon people were grumbling that Mitchell was ruining the show. Bob’s answer was to hang up his helmet, and he sold the outfit to veteran Victorian rider Bernie Mack. In September 1957, Mack took the Norton to a new Australian Land Speed record for its class (181 km/h) at Coonabarabran in northern NSW.
Two years later, the Norton had passed into the hands of colourful sponsor Jack Walters from Bendigo, who persuaded Bob to don his leathers once again. The old smooth style was still there, and he scored wins at Fisherman’s Bend and Darley before heading to Phillip Island for the New Year’s Day meeting in 1960. After being narrowly beaten by Lindsay Urquhart in their first encounter, Bob’s engine snapped a con rod in the second race. That was enough.
After owning Datsun (Nissan) and Toyota car dealerships in Victoria, Bob, Jean and their three children moved to the Gold Coast in the early 1970s, where they still live today. He remained Australia’s most successful international sidecar star until Shane Soutar came along nearly forty years later.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook
*The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Jack Herbert in supplying information and photographs for this story, and to Don Cox for his pioneering work Australian Motorcycle Heroes.