At just seventeen years of age, Doug James was the youngest rider in the Australian Tourist Trophy in 1939. He was also a long way from home. Pre-war, the journey from Wollongong to Phillip Island, the former sealers’ colony in Port Phillip Bay, accessible only by vehicle punt to and from the Victorian mainland, was an epic in itself.
Young Doug was apprenticed to the long-established motorcycle dealer Gordon Spence in Wollongong; agents for Dunelt, Norton, Triumph, Ariel, Panther and Excelsior (British, not American). From time to time the NSW Excelsior importer Eric Moore, was able to order either new or ex-works examples of the racing Manxmans and in 1938 a brand new 250 became available. Eric Moore offered it to Gordon Spence with the suggestion that young James, who was rapidly making a name for himself with a string of excellent results on a 250 and 350 Triumph at places like the local Tom Thumb Lagoon circuit (also known as Monkey Flat), be given the ride.
Spence mentioned the conversation to Doug, and the youngster’s eyes lit up immediately at the thought of straddling such pedigreed tackle. In fact, Doug was so captivated by the idea that he offered to buy the Manxman himself, which he did for £212 10 shillings – an astronomical sum for 1937 on an apprentice’s salary. The first opportunity to use the new 250 was the Australian Tourist Trophy, the official national championship, which rotated between states and for 1939 had been allocated to Phillip Island. Before the TT however, Spence received a further call from Eric Moore. The 350cc Manxman, designated ER-12 by the factory, owned by Moore and ridden to much success by Jim Madsen, was for sale. Without too much prompting, Spence bought that one as well, to be used as a spare at Phillip Island. This actual machine had won the 1937 Australian Grand Prix at the Vale circuit at Bathurst, and Madsen had also taken the bike, in fully steamlined form, to a new 350cc Australian Land Speed record of 107.78 mph. This was set at a so-called ‘secret’ location, which was actually the Cross Roads at Liverpool in Sydney’s west, where a select group comprising Madsen as the rider, Wal Hawtry as tuner, and Don Bain representing the ACU as timekeeper assembled.
With both bikes loaded onto a trailer, hitched to Spence’s MG Sports Car, the pair set off in January 1939 from Wollongong bound for Phillip Island – a journey that took several days to complete.
At the TT, the 250cc and 350cc races were combined, so with temporary registration plate attached, Doug used the 350 to learn the 10 kilometre course. There may not appear to be too much to learn, given the straightforward nature of the Phillip Island layout – four right angle right handers linked by straights, but on a 250, speed through the corners was far more important than on the more powerful 350s and 500s. Doug circulated endlessly before the meeting, and by race day he reckoned he had the quick lines worked out.
On the grid for the combined 250 and 350 TT were some very big names: Norm Osborne (who by now had dumped his former alias Reg East), George Hannaford, Frank Pratt, Wal Hawtrey and Bruce Hector among them. The Lightweight riders wore white jackets to identify them in the massed field, and from the start, the slight figure of Doug James rapidly distanced itself from the other 250 runners. After 12 laps and 72 minutes and 20 seconds of racing, the chequered flag greeted him, with almost a full lap in hand over runner up Les Barnett’s New Imperial. Doug was the youngest-ever winner of an Australian TT and naturally hailed as a prodigious talent.
Packing the winner’s blue ribbon in his kit, Doug and Gordon set off for home, with only a few weeks to prepare for the Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst. This time the engine for the 250 Excelsior was carried in the small compartment behind the seats of the MG, while the rolling chassis went by rail. The components were reunited in the Bathurst pits.
The new Mount Panorama circuit had been fully tar sealed since the opening meeting in 1938, and the Lightweight GP, the first event on the program, had attracted a much more formidable line-up than at Phillip Island. Don Bain, on a OHC Velocette, Tommy Jemison on his very fast MOV Velo, Harry Hinton and his amazing BSA, rising star Ray McKay on a T70 Triumph, and Eric McPherson on another BSA were all name riders. Only 15 riders were graded Expert for the meeting, and despite his championship win, Doug James was not yet among them. Bain had four previous Bathurst wins (all at the Vale circuit) to his credit, while Hinton had won at Phillip Island as well as Bathurst. 1939 marked the first time the Lightweight had been run as a separate event from the Junior, and from the start of the 12 lap race, a distance of 73 kilometres, Jemison and Bain assumed station at the head of the field. Hinton was a last-minute scratching. But by one quarter distance, young Doug was into his stride and displaced the old master Bain to take over second place. For the remainder of the race James lapped in near identical times to the leader (his fastest lap was 3 minutes 35 seconds) but there was no catching Jemison who came home a comfortable winner in 43 minutes 28 seconds of racing. Doug was more than happy with is result, and especially with the 15 quid prizemoney – which represented quite a few repayments on his Excelsior. Madsen, on a 1938 ex-works 350 Excelsior, finished third in the Junior GP. Doug’s string of successes earned him an official nomination from Wollongong MCC to the ACU of NSW to represent Australia at the Isle of Man TT in 1940. This was subsequently endorsed by the ACCA and lodged with the Auto Cycle Union of Great Britain.
But things were changing. Europe was once again a war zone, and Australia was fully committed to the effort. Motor cycle sport virtually ceased over seas, and was severely cut back here. The 1940 Australian Grand Prix at Bathurst did go ahead, but the Isle of Man did not, and Doug had lost his chance for international stardom. At Bathurst, (where he was finally graded Expert) the Lightweight at Junior races were combined, and this time Hinton, who had recently returned from a fact-finding tour of Britain and the Continent, was untouchable. Harry finished the fifteen lap race with 14 seconds in hand over McPherson, riding Jemison’s 1939 winning Velocette, and this pair almost lapped Doug’s Excelsior in third place. The concurrent Junior, run over 25 laps, was an incredible race, with Dave Jenkins’ KTT Velocette defeating Madsen’s Excelsior by just half a second after 100 miles of racing .
Bathurst really was the swan-song for Australian road racing for the next five years, and by the time peace returned and Doug took up where he had left off with Gordon Spence, his racing days were almost over. Apart from a few outings at the local Mount Kiera short circuit on a Triumph Tiger 100, Doug had his hands full running the shop, which rapidly prospered and became the major dealership in the Illawarra region. His beloved 250cc Excelsior Manxman had been resumed by the military during the war, and Doug searched in vain for it for many years. In the end, he settled for something almost as dear to him – the ex-Madsen 350.
It came about after a chance meeting with Madsen around 1970, when Jim had mentioned that his original 350, and Doug’s Phillip Island practice bike, was lying in a back yard at Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains. Doug leapt into action and tracked down the owner, who agreed to sell for $1400. Arriving to collect his prize, Doug’s heart sank when he saw the condition of the famous Manxman. It was completely dismantled and in a shocking state. Still, Doug has always welcomed a challenge and carted home the pile of bits. Restoration took several years, and Doug did virtually the entire job himself. Sourcing the correct transfers for the petroltank proved difficult but not insurmountable, and he enamelled the delicate petrol tank, as well as doing all the other paintwork.
In 1977, Gordon Spence decided to close the business, and Doug, who had been a part of it for 40 years, walked away without a cracker, but he wasn’t out of work for long. He helped acquire the BMW, Triumph and Suzuki agencies for another prominent local dealer, Noel Shipp, and went to work for him. Doug, a natural-born salesman, was so successful in flogging the German machines that he won a trip to the BMW factory in 1982. At the time BMW were completing a police version of the new flat-four K100, and a fully-equipped example was sent to Sydney, where Doug tested it at Oran Park. At 60 years of age, he showed he could still punt a bike around a racetrack.
And he’s still the youngest bloke ever to win an Australian TT.