Christmas Hills – When the hills were alive

Tracks in Time

John Mapperson, winner of the very wet 1970 Grand National.

What was possibly Australia’s most spectacular scrambles circuit now lies beneath the waters of Sugarloaf Reservoir.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook with assistance from Wes Brown and Paul Keam • Photos: Merv Whitelaw

The shop run by John Burrows and Keith Stacker in Malvern, Melbourne, was a Mecca for the scrambles set in the 1960s. Both John and Keith were top competitors, and their shop dispensed tackle like DOT scramblers plus all manner of accessories. The workshop was usually brimming with bikes and engines awaiting anything from a tweak to a full rebuild. A regular customer was Stan Ashmore, who had a go-kart fitted with a 250 cc BSA engine. Stan’s family owned a property in Ashmore Road at Christmas Hills, four miles from Yarra Glen, and after numerous conversations on the possibilities of mapping out a scrambles track on the site, John and Hartwell Vice-President Wes Brown drove out to the property for a first-hand look. 

Left: Layout of the Christmas Hills circuit. Right: Ken Rumble leaps his Husqvarna out of Valvoline Corner prior to the big uphill run towards the main straight in 1967.

What they saw was terrain custom-made for scrambling – rolling hills, good soil and best of all, a supportive land owner. The area gained its name from a former convict and local shepherd, David Christmas, who got himself lost in 1842 and was eventually found, close to starvation, on a rise that was subsequently named after him. When gold was discovered in the area in 1859, a short-lived boom resulted in a town with two hotels, two schools, a post office and a Mechanics’ Institute, but in more modern times little remained. Just a few miles to the north lay the famous Rob Roy Hill Climb, which is still in use today, run by the MG Car Climb with occasional events for historic bikes.

In due course, a circuit was laid out that basically covered two hills separated by a steep gully, and Hartwell club members began a series of working bees in early 1963 to set up the venue for racing. Loads of old tyres were brought in by club members to use as corner markers, fencing erected and a section cleared for a pit area. A notable feature of the track preparation was the use of sawdust donated by local mills, which helped to bind the ever-present mud and lay the dust in drier times. August 4th, 1963 was nominated as the date for the first use of the circuit – a combined club day between Hartwell , Preston, Nunawading, Dandenong, Newport and Gippsland Centre – guaranteeing a quality of entry that would have done any Open meeting proud. The meeting itself, after a promising start, turned into a mudbath due to rain in the afternoon. However it was enough to convince everyone that the venue had the potential to become one of the finest in the country, both for riders and spectators. On that historic day, Geoff Taylor was the 125 cc winner, Welshman Ian Thomas won the 250, and John Burrows rode his Tribsa to victory in the All Powers after an entertaining battle with John Mapperson. The sidecar events were disappointing, with mechanical failures accounting for most of the field and resulting in a win apiece for Harry Rowe and J. Verdon. 

Winner of five consecutive Sidecar Grand Nationals from 1966-70, Ken Adams dices with traditional rival Murray Williams.

The Victorian scrambles scene at the time was extremely buoyant, with circuits like Narre Warren, Barrabool, Springvale, Williamstown, Capmbells Creek, Beaconsfield and Donvale, plus the annual Mud Battle at Korweinguboora, and competition between clubs to stage major events was keen. Hartwell, however, had plans of its own and after a few more closed-to-club days the Christmas Hills track was deemed ready for a ‘big one’. This came in the form of the Victorian Grand National on 10th May, 1964, with £143 in prize money up for grabs – the 11th running of the event that started as a tribute to former club president Ron Hunter who was killed in a grass track race at Nar Nar Goon. As well as the top locals, the entry was bolstered by a trio from NSW; State Champion Graeme Bartholomew, Andrew Duncan and Paul Spooner. From South Australia came Jim Dowsett, Graham Burford and Dave Basham. Significantly, this was the first scrambles meeting in Victoria where riders were permitted to wear football jerseys instead of leather jackets – a victory that had been achieved after an almost unbelievable struggle between competitors and the controlling body, the ACU of Victoria. The main race was contested over 20 laps of the 1-mile circuit, but the preliminary races were spectacular affairs producing great racing. Basham showed the polish be had gained from a season in Britain by heading Burrows in the A Grade Race until they both collided with a lapped rider. Burrows had earlier won a hard-fought 250 race over Geoff Taylor, while George Murphy took out the Sidecar Grand National. Bartholomew had the tough luck to oil a plug on the starting line for the main race, while Basham was also a non-starter with a seized engine. From a field of 29 starters, it was Ian Gaff who brought his 250 Greeves around in front on the first lap, and he was never headed to win from Ken Rumble, riding Burrows’ spare Tribsa, and Dowsett. The big crowd went home happy, the prestigious Grand National had found a new base, and Christmas Hills’ future as the state’s top circuit seemed assured. 

On his 250 CZ, Ray Fisher heads for victory in the 1967 Grand National.

One year down the track, the status quo in the whole scrambles scene changed dramatically with the arrival home of Ray Fisher, who had spent the past five years in Europe. With his big red Matchless Metisse, Ray was the epitome of class and style, demolishing the opposition everywhere in seemingly effortless fashion. One of his first major triumphs was the 1975 Grand National, which he won from John Burrows and Keith Stacker in front of a massive crowd. 

But Hartwell Club had even bigger things in mind, and successfully applied to stage the 1966 Australian Scrambles Championship at Christmas Hills. The date set was 8/9 October 1966, and by this stage interest in scrambles was at an all-time high across Australia. Unlike just a few years before, when fields were dominated by the heavy old British bikes and the lightweight classes by a generally ageing collection of two strokes, the new generation of purpose-built competition machines from CZ, Husqvarna, Bultaco and the British trio of Greeves, Cotton and DOT had completely changed the scene.  

Graham Burford (21 360 CZ) takes the wide line through the bog hole in the 1966 Unlimited Championship.

The entry for the National titles read like a who’s who of the off-road scene at the time; probably the most eclectic gathering in the local history of the sport. Every 1965 champion was there to defend his title, and more than 10,000 paying spectators flocked in to watch the spectacle. Light rain churned up into a sticky bog hole just after the first corner, which became progressively more difficult as the day went on. Despite the big interstate and NZ entry, every title bar the 250 stayed in Victoria, including the Sidecar where defending champions Stan Smith/M. Robbins went down to the Geelong team of Ken Adams with Dennis Cook. The 250 Championship took two heats to whittle down to 20 starters for the 6-lap final, which John Mapperson had shot to pieces until his Bultaco stopped, allowing defending champ Graham Burford from SA through to win in a time almost one minute quicker than the 500 title. That race, unsurprisingly, went to Ray Fisher on his Metisse from John Burrows and Keith Stacker. At 10 laps, the Unlimited was the longest race of the day. Burford, who had been refused a start in the 500 title on his new 360 CZ, fell victim to the mud on the opening lap, with Fisher out in front chased hard by Mapperson. Then on lap 3 Fisher pulled out with a cramp, and Mapperson simply walked away with the race to win easily from Geoff Taylor’s Triumph Metisse and Burrows. 

Start of the 1968 Grand National with Mike Tankard (100 360 Bultaco) ahead of the pack that includes Kim Newcombe (7 Maico), Dave basham (290 Greeves) and Ray Owen (27 Bultaco).

The Australian Championships was a hard act to follow, but life returned to normal for Christmas Hills with the Grand National continuing as the major promotion at the track. In short order, the big four strokes had all-but disappeared by the time the 1967 Grand National took place in May, with Fisher abandoning his Metisse for a CZ, and both Burrows and Stacker now Greeves-mounted. The 20-lap main race saw the 25-strong field disappear in a thick cloud of dust, with Geoff Taylor and Stacker furiously disputing the lead until Taylor stepped off. Fisher maintained station calmly behind, pressuring Stacker into a mistake and going on to victory over Greg Leaney and Ray Owen – only seven riders making it to the finish. Once again, The Adams/Cook pairing and their fast JAP-powered Ariel outfit outclassed the field to take out the Sidecar Grand National.

American desert racer J.N. Roberts warms up for the 1967 International.
Local hero of the 1967 International, Greg Leaney on his Greeves.

But there were even bigger things in store for Christmas Hill before the year was out. In November, the much-vaunted Rothmans International Motocross Series arrived. It was the first time Australia had seen such a brave attempt for an off-road series, although there had been several incursions by overseas road racing stars in the past. The series kicked off at Snake Gully near Adelaide on November 12, then moved to Wollongong and finally to Christmas Hills on 26th November. The visiting troupe comprised Welshman John Lewis, Swedish Husqvarna development rider and engineer Gunnar Lindstrom, American desert racer J.N. Roberts (who brought his 360 Husqvarna with him as air cargo) and a strong NZ team of Ivan Miller, Morely Shirriffs and Gordon Holland, with ex-Adelaidian Tim Gibbes as the series organiser as well as rider. One hiccup was that Lewis’ Matchless Metisse had failed to arrive by ship and he was forced to borrow local Ray Christie’s 441 BSA Victor to win the Adelaide round. By the time the Victorian Round came around, Lewis was still without his own mount, and borrowed Ken Rumble’s new 360 Husqvarna. In front of the biggest crowd yet seen at Christmas Hills, 35 riders came to the line for the first leg of the International MX and to enormous cheers, young Greg Leaney rocketed into the lead on his 250 Greeves and stayed there until halfway through the 10 lap race when he dropped the model, leaving Shirriffs, Lewis and Lindstrom to scrap. Then the Kiwi fell, and Lindstrom forced his way into the lead on the final lap to win narrowly from Lewis, with the gallant Leaney back into third place. Leg Two was the last race of the day but very few of the spectators had gone home. Once again Leaney was ahead, but this time Lewis displaced him early with Lindstrom following soon after, only to have his Husqvarna seize. Lewis’ engine was next to go off-song, leaving the spectacular Shirriffs to win from Gibbes. The 21-year old from Palmerston North was reprimanded by the stewards for ‘dangerous’ riding – travelling the length of the main straight on the back wheel! A gridlock of spectators’ cars attempting to leave the circuit resulted in a two-hour traffic jam – something faced by very few promoters.

Greg Leaney (250 Greeves) heads Ray Fisher (33 Montesa), Geoff Taylor (14 Bultaco) and Keith Stacker (31 Greeves) into the second turn before the downhill run into the valley.

1968 was the year that Keith Stacker finally broke through to win the GN. Stacker was in top form all day on his 360 Greeves and earlier won the A&B grade race from Geoff Taylor and Dave Basham. This year, the sidecars competed over the full track used by the solos, whereas previously they had used a shortened version. It made no difference to the result, however, as the dominant Adams/Cook combination triumphed yet again. 20 laps was again the distance for the 15th running of the Grand National, and such was Stacker’s pace he chopped 3 minutes off Fisher’s winning time from 12 month previous. Greg Leaney made the running after early leader John Madden from Tasmania pulled out with exhaustion, but by lap eight Stacker was through and pulled effortlessly away to win from the Bultaco duo of Taylor and young Gary Flood.

One year later the International series was back, the cast this time comprised of seasoned veteran Gordon Adsett and fellow Brit Randy Owen, plus an unknown Austrian, Alfred Postman. The big Kiwi contingent consisted of Alan Collison on a 360 Montesa, Alan Franklin, Ross McLaren and Des Boyce, all on CZs. Following rounds in Perth and Tasmania, it was Christmas Hills’ turn and despite wet weather a crowd of 6,000 turned out. After dominating the previous rounds it was expected that Adsett and Owen would again take charge, but South Australian Dave Basham had other ideas, and led Adsett a merry chase for half the first leg until he lost third and top gears. Owen had earlier taken a dip in the dam during a first-lap sort-out. Basham held on to finish second with Keith Stacker, who had earlier in the year won the Grand National at the circuit, third. In Leg two Owen cleared out to win from Adsett, who took the overall victory, with Stacker again third. 

On the northernmost section of the circuit, Geoff Taylor (Triumph Metisse) and Peter Heywood (Matchless Metisse) clear the jump.

The 1969 Grand National provided a fitting victory for the popular all-rounder Graham Smith, riding Bert Flood’s 360 Bultaco, with Garry Flood second ahead of Jack Pengally. Adams and Cook yet again won the Sidecar GN. Moves to promote a third running of the International Series unfortunately came to nought, and although another series did take place in 1972, the promoters ran the Victorian round at the dreary Calder complex rather than Christmas Hills. 

As the machinery became more sophisticated, Hartwell decided to test stamina even further by increasing the GN to 30 laps – almost one hour. But in 1975, the GN became just one leg of a curious and confusing series, the traditional Christmas Hills 30 lapper won by Trevor Flood.  Thankfully, the experiment was not repeated and the lure of $250 first prize money brought a quality field to the line for the 1976 event which was won by Steven Cramer’s RM250 Suzuki – the first victory for a Japanese machine. 

Winner of the final Grand National held at Christmas Hills in 1977, Jack Pengelly (400 Maico).

But by this stage, the spectacular circuit’s days were numbered, as the area had been earmarked by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works for the construction of the Sugarloaf Reservoir, which would occupy 440 hectares of the valley and have a capacity of 96,000 megalitres. The dam wall would be 89 metres high, to handle up to 20% of Melbourne’s water requirements. This was to be, in MMBW parlance, a “sludgy dam” with only a small natural catchment to be topped up by pumping water from the Maroondah Aqueduct just below, and the Yarra River below that. In keeping with the “sludgy dam” practice, all trees and vegetation below high-water mark were removed, that job falling to MMWB’s gun bulldozer operator, the up-and-coming road racer Andrew Johnson. 

The circuit was doomed and Hartwell club had no option but to accept defeat and look for a new circuit, which they found at Seymour, and their prestigious Grand National was run at the new location from 1978. The final Grand National at Christmas Hills took place in May 1977, when club member Jack Pengelly put his name into the record books. Tragically, the race marked the end of the promising career of young Anton Alers, who crashed into the post-and-rail fence while dicing for the lead with just two laps to run. St. Johns Ambulance staff advised immediate hospital treatment for a serious leg injury, but delays in seeking that treatment led to a condition called Gas Gangrene in the lower leg which was amputated just below the hip. 

1978 saw the Ashmore property, and much of the Christmas Hills area, acquired by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. Eventually, Ashmore Road and the area occupied by the circuit disappeared under 20 metres of water. At the height of the drought in 2008, the old track, distinguished by the colouration of the sawdust-impregnated soil, was visible in aerial photographs of the receding lake. Today, the former Ashmore property hosts competing entities of an entirely different nature – the Sugarloaf Sailing Club – and the inlet structure of the North-South Pipeline, currently sitting idle. 

Victorian Grand National at Christmas Hills – Winners

1964: Ian Gaff 250 Greeves
1965: Ray Fisher 500 Matchless Metisse
1966: Geoff Taylor 500 Triumph Metisse
1967: Ray Fisher 250 CZ
1968: Keith Stacker 360 Greeves
1969: Graham Smith 360 Bultaco
1970: John Mapperson 400 Husqvarna
1971: Peter Ploen 400 Husqvarna
1972: Alan Collison 400 Husqvarna
1973: Gary O’Brien 360 Montesa
1974: Per Klitland 400 Maico
1975: Trevor Flood 360 Husqvarna
1976: Steven Cramer 250 Suzuki
1977: Jack Pengelly 400 Maico

OBA Issue 29
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.29