Harold Parsons. Briefly the best.

Rider Profile

OBA Issue 14
Harold Parsons with members of Rhodes Motors, the Indian distributors, prior to a record attempt. Timing equipment can be seen on the right.

There are very few monuments dedicated to racing motorcyclists in the world, and in Australia, perhaps only one. It stands in a park on Punt Road, Richmond, in inner Melbourne, and today, attracts few glances from the park’s patrons. But this stone memorial commemorates the tragically short life of a phenomenally successful and prodigiously talented rider whose exploits were the stuff of legend.

Harold was born just minutes away from where his monument now stands, in Hoddle Street Richmond, in 1893, and attended the local Yarra Park School. He was one of a family of eight, five boys and three girls, and the family home was near the fire station in Hoddle Street. One of his brothers joined the volunteer fire brigade, but was killed when a wall collapsed on him while fighting the fire that burned down the ‘Baygoo Vaudeville Theatre’. Harold’s first job was as a baker’s assistant, working for and living with the Hines family at Bacchus Marsh, but it was things mechanical, not yeast and flour, that occupied his fertile mind. In 1916 he secured a position at Turner Brothers, the Harley-Davidson agents, and later with the rival Indian dealers, Rhodes Motors.

Standing just 5 foot four inches (162 cm) tall and weighing 64 kg, Parsons, a strict non-drinker and non-smoker, was probably a bit on the small side for the machines of the day, but nobody told him. Of swarthy complexion, he earned the nickname ‘Ranji’. His first victory came at the Rosanna Hill Climb in 1915 aboard a 3.5 hp Harley-Davidson, and within six months he was racking up the wins and had captured the Australian One Mile Record in the 500cc class at 58 seconds. Aboard a big twin Harley, he toured four states of Australia taking numerous wins and records. In 1918 he broke the Sydney to Melbourne record with a time of 20 hours 58 minutes, and the following year, riding a 7hp Indian outfit with W.R.Jenkins in the sidecar, set a new mark for the 589 miles from Melbourne to Adelaide of 19 hours 20 minutes. It was a remarkable achievement as the going was mainly rough tracks through the sandy Mallee desert country and much of the run was done through severe thunderstorms, which turned creek crossings into flooded waterways.

OBA Issue 14
Harold with a group of well-wishers and representatives from Turner Bros, the Harley-Davidson distributors in Victoria, prior to a record attempt.

The American daredevil ‘Cannonball’ Baker, a prolific record breaker over a period of 25 years, had notched up several marks during his visits to Australia, including clocking up 1,027 miles in 24 hours at Mortlake, Victoria in 1916, riding an Indian Powerplus. Later the same year, Parsons attacked Baker’s record over the same 33.9 mile lap at Mortlake, but failed. Undeterred, he tried again on January 3rd, 1917, breaking Baker’s records up to the three hour mark, after which he was forced to again retire his Harley. Perhaps as a result of the repeated breakdowns, he was lured into the Indian fold, taking up a new job at Rhodes Motors, and winning first time out for his new team at a Grass Track meeting at Werribee. At the big Easter carnival at Mortlake in 1919, Rhodes entered Parsons on an 8-valve racing Indian which had been timed at over 95 mph. Clearly the fastest rider, parsons was forced out with bad burns to his legs from the open exhaust stubs, despite wearing asbestos stockings. On New Year’s Day 1920, Parsons took the Indian to Goulburn, NSW, and won the 12-lap Championship from a strong team of NSW Harley riders.

In 1920 Rhodes Motors decided to challenge Baker’s World record at a road course at Sale, They opted to use the smaller 600cc side-valve Indian Scout, a machine not renowned for its scintillating performance but a good handler, with Parsons in the saddle. The first attempt on August 18th was called off at the twelfth hour due to thick fog, at which point Parsons had claimed a new 12 Hour record of 544 miles. The second attempted Started at 7am on 27th August, 1920, and by the halfway stage he had broken his own record by notching up 579 miles. When the 24 hours had elapsed, he had completed 48 laps of the 23 mile triangular gravel course from Sale to Stratford, across to Maffra and back to Sale, to clock up 1114.5 miles (1793 km) and shatter the World Record. He averaged 26 minute laps in the daylight and 28 minutes in the night, with very poor lighting. Each lap, he was airborne for 13 metres as he crossed the rail line near Sale. Even when the 24 hours had elapsed, Parson continued flat out, and had to be chased down by officials in an 8-cylinder Buick, who marked the precise spot that he had reached at the 24-hour point. He spent 22 hours 13 minutes actually riding, the remainder of the time being spent refuelling, changing batteries for the additional lighting on the Indian and briefly taking nourishment. Records show that he survived the ride on tea and toast, but stopped at the 12-hour mark for steak, poached eggs and plum pudding! His wrists were massaged at every stop, and anyone who has ridden an Indian Scout on rough gravel roads will know why. The local Turf Hotel kept officials supplied with hot meals. Dunlop was particularly pleased with the effort, not a single puncture being recorded on the pair of beaded edged tyres that did the whole 24 hours. As well as the prized 24 hour record, he set new times for 6, 12 and 18 hours, as well as distance marks, a total of 24 in all. The local prohibitionists made much capital out of the fact that Parsons (a strict teetotaller) achieved his incredible feat of endurance without resorting to the use of alcohol!

OBA Issue 14
Harold Parsons at speed.

The record made major news around the globe, and transported Parsons into the superstar realm. In recognition of the achievement, he was awarded a medal with 1114 and one half diamonds (one for each mile covered) set in a 15 carat gold base, which is today valued at over $200,000. Two months later he journeyed to Queensland where he competed at Clifford Park, Toowoomba, setting a record time for the Mile grass track on his 8-valve Indian and thrashing the opposition despite conceding a lap to some rivals in the main handicap event. The Australian Motor Cycling journal, in reporting the event, said, “ The crowd was just frantic, and swarmed the saddling paddock just to gaze on this unnatural one, who had covered the eight laps (of one mile, 20 yards) in 7 minutes 57 and 4/5 seconds.”

In 1921, J.H.Rhodes brought back from America two works Indian engines. On May 21, Parsons and the Rhodes squad of mechanic Bill Jenkins, J. Rhodes and Baden Wilding, took a motorcycle fitted with one of these motors to a stretch of road at Epping, north of Melbourne, to conduct tests. Parsons had made several runs and decided on one more, when a horse strayed onto the road. The brakeless Indian struck the animal and Parsons, who was not wearing a helmet, was thrown onto the road, where he received serious head injuries. Rhodes rushed him to Royal Melbourne Hospital but he failed to regain consciousness. At the time of his death, he was engaged to a nurse from Sale, Miss Blanche Garland.

Harold’s achievements were widely celebrated in Australia and around the world including the covers of Motor Cycling Australia and the Wigwam News from Massachusetts, USA. At right is shown the Harold Parsons Memorial that stands in the park at Punt Road, Richmond Victoria and reads as follows…. “In memory of Harold Parsons, Australia’s Champion Motor Cyclist. Accidentally killed at Epping, 15th May 1921. Erected by the Motor Cyclists of Australia and friends.

Newspapers of the time reported that more than one thousand people attended Parson’s burial at Boroondara Cemetery in Kew, with a guard of honour of one hundred motorcycles and riders at the gates. Flowers and tributes came from all parts of Australia. Two years later, the Victorian Motorcycle Club erected a monument at Harold’s old school, the Yarra Park State School, on the corner of Punt Road and Bridge Road Richmond. The monument had taps fitted to both sides – one to supply drinking water to the public and the other for the children of the school. During the depression, the copper bands securing the monument were stolen, and many years later, the Auto Cycle Union of Victoria had it refurbished. Two hundred motorcyclists gathered for the rededication ceremony, which was carried out by the then-president of the ACU, Fred Yott, who had competed against Harold.

When the Yarra Park School closed in 1989, the monument was moved across the road to a park, where it stands to this day. This time, the ceremony was performed by the late Reg Bennett, then aged 84. Another monument was created by the Maffra Sale Motorcycle Club and the City of Sale from a 10-ton block of granite with a bronze plaque, which stands opposite the city’s showgrounds.

OBA Issue 14
Harold with the Precision, built by A.G. Healing & Co in Melbourne from 1912 to 1916.

Remembering ‘Ranji’

In 1981 the Maffra Sale Motorcycle Club decided to hold a memorial rally and display of bikes to promote the achievements of Harold Parsons in the Maffra-Sale area. There were over 80 bikes on show with trophies presented by the late Phil Irving. Two years later Ian Kennedy put together the first Harold Parsons Reliability Trial, attracting 19 entries. Don Feore on a 1959 Norton took the major award. Reg Bennett was invited to make the presentations and brought with him a statuette of an Indian Chief, originally donated to the Victorian Motorcycle Club (forerunner of the ACU) but never presented. Reg was so impressed with the club’s efforts that he donated the trophy for perpetual award. Ian Kennedy continued to run the Reliability Trial for ten years, during which time entries steadily increased, reaching 137 in 1992, when Adrian Blake was the winner on a 1980 Harley-Davidson. This year also marked the dedication of the new monument near the start of the original course where Parsons set his record, and the occasion was listed as part of Victoria’s 150th Celebrations. The rally still runs under the stewardship of Maurie and Tina Harkin, making it one of the longest-running such events on the calendar.

This year’s rally (2009) was run on 28th March, following the usual format where each competitor specifies their intended average speed, the winner being the one who comes closest to maintaining that average throughout the day. A total of 87 riders departed from the club rooms at Maffra in one-minute intervals, with secret controls along the way to keep an eye on things. Lunch was taken at the Marley Point Yacht Club. As well as the established classes, a new award was introduced this year, for pre-1960 bikes, in memory of club stalwart Keith Hamilton, who passed away in January.

Story: Jim Scaysbrook with assistance from Ian Kennedy, Paul Reed, Maurie and Tina Harkin
Photos: Paul Reed, Philip Smith.

OBA Issue 14
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.14.