Eric Debenham: Bathurst Easter legend

The start of the first Ryan’s Veteran’s Race at Oran Park. Eric (87), Jack Ahearn (40) on the Art Senior Ariel, Elmer McCabe (7RAJS 47), Jack Forrest (Ariel) and Bryen Lemon.

Even above the hubbub of the combined racket coming from the pits and the racetrack, it was never difficult to find Eric Debenham. His constant guffaw rose above everything else, and yet, for a bloke who always had a smile on his face, and a great listener, there was no fiercer competitor. Eric never knew the meaning of settling for second, it simply wasn’t in his vocabulary.

“I’ve never liked queuing for anything,” he says without a hint of flippancy. “If people were in front of me I just had to get past them.” Those who saw Eric, known universally as Debbo, compete in a career that spanned 59 years, would know just how true those words are. Of course, the stuff that made the Debenham legend was the big man (six foot three in the old money), wringing the neck of the Corish Vincent at Bathurst, but that was a fair way down the track in a racing career that began in 1946.

Left: Eric Debenham, 1992. Right: Eric’s Norvin in the pits at Amaroo Park, 1976.

Eric was born on October 5th, 1926 on his parents’ 27-acre orchard and vineyard at Chipping Norton in Sydney’s southern extremities, the youngest of six children. His father had visions of his son continuing the agrarian lifestyle, but as Eric puts it, “All I wanted to do was either fly aeroplanes or drive trucks.” His elder brother Jack had a Model 18 Norton, the first of the saddle tank models, and Eric used to pester him constantly for pillion rides, and eventually, a solo run or two around the farm. Immediately after the war, another brother, Frank got hold of a Mk 5 KTT Velocette, and Eric managed to cajole a ride on it at a club grass track meeting at Lansdowne. It wasn’t a permanent arrangement, and it made Eric hanker for a machine of his own. The result was a Model 19 596cc Norton; hardly a sharp competitive tool, but one that was soon stripped of every spare ounce, with the fuel tank replaced by a kerosene tin, and entered in anything that was going, including the always-muddy scrambles races at Liverpool. It was a beast of a thing to ride, but it toughened the youngster well and taught him the rudimentries of competition. The Norton was disposed of when he had the chance to buy a 1939 Silver Steak AJS – the heavily chrome sports model – with his father providing the balance of the cash needed. That partnership came to an end when the crankshaft broke. He soon acquired a genuine Competition 500cc Matchless with a rigid frame, to which Gillett cams were fitted along with a bump up in compression ratio. As well as plying the dirt tracks, it gave him a start at the big one – Bathurst – in 1951.

“My mate Bruce Shennan had a compy Matchless as well, and in our race, the Senior Non Expert, we were together going up Mountain Straight on the first lap and he leaned over and pulled the ignition retard lever on my handlebars! The bike popped and banged and almost stopped and I though, right, I’ll get you, and I chased him up the mountain and caught him as we were going down Conrod. He had a TT carby with an air lever (choke) so I leaned over and pulled the lever on – just like he had done to me! Well, after the race, there’s this announcement on the pit PA calling riders 142 and 168 to the green shed (the officials’ headquarters). So we fronted up to Wally Capper (Event Secretary) and he threw the book at us, said we could have our licences taken away for life for being so foolish, then sort of half smiled and told us to get out and if had to speak to us again we were in for it.”

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Left: Eric with his 500 Competition Matchless at Castlereagh Airstrip, 1952. Right: On the dirt at Braemar, Mittagong, 1952.

As it turned out, Eric’s beloved Matchless had not long to live. On the starting line for a short circuit meeting in a blue-metal quarry at St. Marys, he released the clutch but no forward progress was made. “I looked own and the engine was gone, there was bits of metal all over the track. They stopped the race before the field came round, to sweep up all the bits. All that was left was the cylinder head, the carby and the magneto, so I took it in to Bill Mayes at A.P. North (Matchless agents) and told him about it. Bill said, give me all the blown up bits and I’ll send them to Matchless and see if we can get a claim, which he did, and it turned out the con rod was faulty, it was porous, so they replaced everything except the three components that weren’t damaged”. Of course, all this took time, and in the interim, Eric acquired a B33 BSA, specifically chosen for its lightness (the engine formed part of the frame) and this was steadily developed into a real short circuit weapon. His race appearances had to be scheduled around his work as a truck driver with a contract to cart sand and river gravel, which called for early starts and early nights. Occasionally there would be a road race at Mount Druitt, where he rode his brother Jack’s Triumph Tiger 80. But dirt tracks were more plentiful, and cheaper, than road racing, and Eric and the BSA soon rose to A Grade status, despite being pitted against the fast JAPs ridden by the likes of Bill McBride and Norm Fraser. In June 1957, Short Circuit, always the Cinderella branch of the sport, was awarded its own national title, the venue being the Oehm family’s track on their property Talbingo, near Junee. There was £400 prize money at stake, and Eric had his eye on a share of it, but third in the Senior Championship final was the best he could do, with Griffith’s John Shields (Ariel) and Ray Curtis (BSA) ahead of him. The result was a disappointment to him but it taught him a lesson, which he would put into practice the following year, when the titles were again staged in Junee.

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Aboard brother Jack’s Triumph Tiger 80 at Mount Druitt.

“I said to my wife, I only need fourth in the heat, and fourth in the semi, to get to the final, so that’s what I am going to do, and that’s what I did. I kept my eye on the fifth bloke and rode only as hard as I needed – nobody took any notice of me. After the semi final, Cliff Oehm, the owner of the property came up and said, ‘Eric, you’re wasting your time, you may as well go home’. I just said, ‘Oh well, I’ll just see what I can do.’ “ From the moment the elastic starting tape coiled away, Debbo was gone, leaving the field trailing in his wake. Head down and shoulders hunched, Eric kept the BSA nailed to finish a clear winner from his arch-rival Ray Curtis – he was Australian Champion. Later in the year, at the NSW Championships at Boxer’s Creek, Goulburn, he led the Senior final until the last corner, when he ran slightly wide, letting Norm Fraser through for the win.

Churning up Salt Pan Creek in his Jaguar-engined hydroplane ‘Avenger’.

But the grind of attending Short Circuit events all over the state, combined with the pressure of obtaining his own semi-trailer and the need to keep it in work, led Eric to forsake bikes for speedboats, a sport he could enjoy on the Georges River, in his own backyard, and on Kogarah Bay. He opted for Hydroplanes, twitchy, triple-hulled craft that could reach 100 mph and took a deft touch and a big heart to control. In his boat ‘Avenger’ he ran a Jaguar Mk 7 DOHC engine fitted with a D Type head, with the whole motor turned backwards. Things went pretty well, netting him the NSW Championship in 1963 and 1964, but the boat sank after striking a craypot marker. With a mammoth task ahead to rebuild the submerged engine, Eric said he just ‘couldn’t be bothered’ and turned his back on the sport.

Again, as one door closed, another opened. Keith Corish, whom Eric had known for over 15 years, came back from the 1964 Bathurst meeting having seen Victorian Arthur Pimm’s Vincent-engined Norton, and set about building a similar machine. “One day Keith just rang up and said, ‘I’ve built this bike, would you like to ride it?’. I said, well, I’d better have a look at it, and went round to Keith’s place. I wasn’t that taken with it really, he had done a lot of things wrong. There were big steel brackets that were heavy, and things like thin exhaust pipes with reverse cone megaphones – Vincents like big straight pipes. The engine was too high in the frame – it was top-heavy.” However the machine was gradually refined, with the B-Series Rapide motor brought up to Lightning Specifications, with a caged big end and a larger crank pin made by Arthur Payne. Alloy progressively replaced the steel components, but Keith insisted on fitting a huge seven-gallon fuel tank made by Jim Zakis.

In the Vincent’s Oran Park debut, he finished second to William Van den Hoek in the Unlimited C Grade after leading the race, but while in front in the later Unlimited B the bottom fell out of tank, showering methanol everywhere. Subsequently, the tank was cut down to 5 gallons – just enough to get through 12 laps at Bathurst.

Eric’s Bathurst debut on the Vincent came in Easter 1967. Despite his prowess on the dirt, he was still graded C for road racing, but in the Unlimited C Grade, with a field of 100, he got involved in a three-way dice for the lead after coming through from 27th on the grid. Despite setting the fastest race lap of 2.59, he had to settle for third behind winner Gordon Randall and Van den Hoek’s Norton.

One of the machine’s deficiencies was brakes, and for the 1968 Bathurst meeting Corish fitted a pair of Lyster front discs with a Lockhart master cylinder. “On full compression of the front forks the right hand brake hose would bow inwards,” Eric recalls, “ and the front part of the mudguard was holding it off the tyre. But the mounting bracket of the guard cracked so we pulled it off; what we didn’t know was that allowed the front brake hose to rub against the tyre. If it had happened at Forrest’s Elbow I don’t think I would I be here talking to you. I could grab the brake at 400 yards at Murray’s Corner and just make it, but this time, on the 3rd lap, there was nothing there – it had pumped all the fluid out. It’s marvellous how quick your brain works, and this is where Short Circuit training comes into it. I was on the right so I moved over to the left – I’m back into second gear and the thing’s screaming – and went to take the escape road, and there were barriers across it! So back over to the right – and this is all from 400 yards – I locked the back wheel and threw it on its side, like you do on dirt, and it chattered down and the wheels went under the sleeper fence. The engine was still running and a marshal helped me drag it out from under the fence and I got going again and I was going to get back into it, and then I remembered I had no brake, so I rode into the back of the pits and there was Keith with his pipe. He was completely surprised to see me. I said ‘I’ve just been off it, look at the dirt all over me! It took a bit off my confidence, after that I always gave the brakes a little touch before I needed them.

1969 was the year that Debbo really became a legend, at least in the eyes of thousands of spectators at Bathurst at Easter. He opened his account with victory in the Unlimited B Grade, with a brilliant lap of 2.43 that took two seconds off the outright lap record, but Eric wasn’t completely happy – he fancied his chances in the Unlimited GP. “It didn’t feel good in the B Grade, I got past Peter Jones on the Norton on 3rd lap but it didn’t feel sharp, so back in the pits I said to Keith, let’s check the timing and sure enough it was on 32 degrees instead of 36. It had two maggies on it and to put the dial gauge into the front plug hole you had to pull the float bowl off. So we did that, and put the float bowl back on, but I reckon none of us remembered to tighten it or put the lock nut on it. Anyway I got away about 11th (in the Unlimited GP) and on the first lap past the Drive In gates it was revving to 7 and it felt good. I must have passed Jack Ahearn somewhere because he was on the front row – I passed John Warrian on Mountain Straight – and Norm Askew said to me afterwards that I was leaving Ahearn by 1 and a half seconds a lap.” A lap of 2.41 (another new record) and the retirement of Ron Toombs on the Henderson Matchless put the race in the bag for Eric, then it all went sour. “It just wouldn’t stand the revs, any more than 5-5 it would drop a cylinder, so Ahearn passed me down the straight and I nursed the thing back home (to second ahead of Geoff Lucas). Ahearn’s Triumph broke a crank as he crossed the finish line. He finished up with the lap record – I got down to 2.40.5 and he took another half a second off that. They asked us to do a lap of honour, but I couldn’t do it either because the clutch had come off. I was holding it on with my left heel – knocked my boot around a bit – lucky it was on a spline not a keyway. The nut was coming unscrewed – about the 7th lap I started to get excessive freeplay in the clutch cable until there was nothing there, and I thought if this thing tightens up what will I do, but I considered this for a while and thought I’d take the chance. I tell you what, it was frustrating – bloody frustrating! Anyway we took the bike home, we thought one magneto had packed up and Keith put it on his stand and didn’t touch it all week. I went over the following Saturday afternoon and pulled the tank off and there was the float bowl lying on its side. It obviously hadn’t been tightened up.”

Eric in the form that made him the crowd favourite; pushing the Corish Vincent hard around Oran Park.

The Corish Vincent had its last Bathurst outing in Eric’s hands in 1970, but blew third gear blew on Mountain Straight on the fourth lap. “It was a drama that year, they made me A Grade. We were hanging around all day waiting for the Unlimited so later in the afternoon I said to Keith that we should start it and warm it up a bit. That was OK, and about half an hour before the Unlimited I got into my gear, went to start it, and the front carby was flooding, the float had sunk, punctured. We had a spare and put that it but by that time they were letting them out onto the grid and they wouldn’t let us start it. I said to Keith, this is not going to start, it’s full of fuel. I was on the outside of the front row – Tony Gill went halfway up Mountain Straight to give me signals. Sure enough the thing wouldn’t start – I was last away, and Tony said that I was going up Mountain Straight as the leaders were coming down Conrod, but in the four laps that it lasted, I didn’t lose any time, the gap stayed the same. Keith got frustrated with all the problems and he sold it to Lindsay Nourish from Queensland. He thought I was going to kill myself on it. “

Keith Corish may have had enough, but not Eric, and he immediately began a lengthy process of building his own Norvin. “Doug Robson sold me a pair of unmatched crankcases and some cylinder muffs when I started to build mine, I got a wide-line featherbed frame from somewhere, but there’s a lot of development in a hybrid, a lot of work. I spread the bottom frame rails so I could drop the engine a bit, and it handled really well – I didn’t even mind riding it in the wet it was so tractable and handled so well.” This time around, it was the newly-introduced Historic Racing scene that interested Eric. He already had a ride on Arthur Payne’s pre-war ‘Garden Gate’ 350 Manx Norton, and with the Vincent for the Unlimited class, he was set. Former Sporting Trials champion Norm Aldridge also bought a 350 featherbed Manx from Geoff Coombs and offered it to Eric for the later-model Junior class.

In fact, Historic racing came along at just the right time for Eric, and in what was probably Australia’s first such race, he took the chequered flag. It was titled the Veteran’s Classic, held at Oran Park in 1971 and on the front row were Eric on the Payne 350 Manx, Jack Ahearn on the Art Senior Ariel, Elmer McCabe (7R AJS), Jack Forrest (Ariel) and Bryan Lemon (Ariel). It was the forerunner of other similar races within normal meetings, and soon, of stand-alone Historic meetings at Amaroo Park, Lakeside and Winton. With his stable, Eric became the man to beat, as well as the crowd favourite, because even though Historic racing was meant to be low-key, to Eric it was still a race, and second place was unthinkable. His do-or-die style occasionally brought him undone, and he suffered a heavy fall at Amaroo when the Vincent jumped out of gear. Soon afterwards, he had another trip down the road at Lakeside, and the big Vincent went to a new owner, Wayne Tucker in South Australia. But Debbo wasn’t finished yet, and in 1989 he flew to Daytona to help out his mate Tony Gill with the home-brewed 500 cc Honda owned by Sydney businessman Bill Snelling. He found that watching from the infield was tough, so two years later he was back, this time with his leathers. Alas, the 250 Aermacchi he borrowed from Craig McLean seized terminally on the western banking after just two laps of practice.

On the starting line for the second Ryan’s Veteran Race at Oran Park.

His last ride in NSW was at Oran Park in 2003, aboard the Payne Manx that had been fitted with a 500 cc engine. After clutch troubles he elected to start from the back row, but once under way found all was well with the Manx and he began hauling in rider after rider. “I could get through the flip flop flat in third, and it had good brakes on it, but I heeled it over for Energol (corner) and the bottom part of the plunger rear suspension ground and kicked the back out – it lined me up for the straight! I thought, gee, that was good, so I did it every lap after that. I was catching Jack Saunders on his G50 and finished up 5th. But back in the pits Arthur went crook – he said ‘look at me frame, all the aluminium’s worn away!’ ”

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Eric on Norm Aldridge’s 350 Manx Norton, dicing with Jack Saunders’ Matchless G50.

There was just one more race outing for Eric – aboard Ken Lucas’ Norvin at Mount Gambier’s McNamara Park in 2005, with former Superbike rider Peter Guest acting as mechanic. “I just couldn’t get on with it (the Vincent), it understeered and I was running wide all the time, the best I could do was third.” For Eric, third just ain’t good enough, even at 78 years of age, so it was time to hang up the leathers – literally. Possibly to remove any further temptation, Eric’s riding kit was donated to the National Motor Racing Museum at Bathurst, where they are now on display in a glass case.

In later life Eric became a keen rally goer and a member (and later patron) of the Illawarra branch of the Classic & Enthusiasts, riding an ES2 Norton and a 1938 MSS Velocette. A fall from his Suzuki road bike in 2013 sent him into hospital, and his health gradually deteriorated after that. Eric Debenham passed away on May 3rd, 2015  after a long illness, aged 88.

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This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.15