Six kilometres of flat-out dirt was a test of the brave in the 1930s…. and you can still try it any weekend.
Reaching Lithgow, the first stop over the blue Mountains from Sydney, was an epic journey early last century, but that didn’t stop top-line riders making the trek to compete at the Hartley Vale circuit, which had been established by the local Lithgow Motorcycle Club. Lithgow club used the area for a variety of motorcycle competition, including hill climbs and as a base for numerous rallies. But in the foothills below Mount Victoria, where the plains sweep away towards Bathurst and beyond, there existed a network of roads that could have been custom-made for motorcycle racing.
The area had been surveyed as far back as 1815, when convict gangs constructed roads under command of the surveyor William Cox. Roughly halfway between Mount Victoria and Bell, at the base of the escarpment, lies the Vale of Clwyd on the Lett River. An early settlement had been established nearby at Hartley Vale. It wasn’t much but it had a couple of pubs (the Comet Inn and Collits Inn) some shops and basic facilities, with Mount York providing an imposing backdrop. It also had an ideal set of roads – roughly triangular in shape and measuring 3.75 miles (6 km) which was naturally dirt in its entirety, but reasonably wide and exceptionally fast. The first use of this course dates back to 1918, although it is believed these were mainly restricted to local club members.
One of the top local riders was Henry Callander, who owned a Melbourne-built GCS (Stilwell) JAP. With a specially made oversized petrol tank to allow him to complete the 100 miles distance non-stop, Henry won the 1920 TT conducted by the Lithgow MCC – the biggest-yet race around the Hartley Vale circuit. The popularity of the event led to suggestions to open up the competition to other clubs, an idea enthusiastically received by local businesses, and with the full cooperation of the Blaxland Shire.
The first ‘open’ meeting was held on the Anniversary Day Holiday weekend in January 1922, and became a regular fixture on the competition calendar. By 1925, the Hartley Vale Circuit, as it had become known, was hosting two meetings per year – one in January and the other on the Eight Hour Day holiday weekend in October, with 25 mile and 100 mile races for the NSW Tourist Trophy, co-promoted by Western Suburbs Motor Cycle Club of Sydney and the Lithgow club, with officials drawn from far and wide. In that year, Stuart Williams, part of the P & R Williams organisation that had the NSW distributorships for AJS and Velocette motorcycles, won the shorter race, while the main event went to Lance Watson.
The official program carried a colourful description of the track. “The shape and size of the Hartley Circuit offers a wonderful opportunity to spectators of seeing the riders in action on the various bends and corners around the course. After witnessing the mass start the spectators may proceed along the course, either in the direction of the race to view the riders taking a series of four bends immediately after one another, where undoubtedly some of the finest riding will be seen, or along the other leg of the course in the opposite direction to the riders where there are 6 bends in a distance of about half a mile, none of which can be taken at the same speed, where many thrilling moments will be provided. For those who wish to see the riders on the fastest section of the course where speeds of over 100 m.p.h are possible, a short walk along either of the straights previously described will bring them to the back stretch which runs from Morris’ Corner to Walsh’s Corner.”
The layout, although prone to be dusty, was a big hit with riders and spectators alike, always providing a happy picnic atmosphere for the races. With the nearby Vale circuit at Bathurst hosting the Australian Grand Prix or Australian TT each Easter from 1931, the area became quite a hotbed for motorcycle racing. Despite the popularity of the venue, it required a lot of manpower to organise, and the promotion of the races eventually passed completely to the energetic Western Suburbs Club. Under the presidency of Cec Weatherby, holder of the Sydney-Melbourne record and with rides in the Isle of Man TT under his belt, Wests had some of the country’s best racers within its ranks and was probably the most active club in the state. By the mid-1930s, the twice-a-year pilgrimage to Hartley was an established tradition, and the events drew the cream of the state’s riders as well as the odd interstater.
The Anniversary Day meeting on January 27, 1936, was the biggest-yet in the circuit’s history. The entry list contained all the top names: Art Senior, Harry Hinton, Don Bain, Cec Weaterby, Jack Chignell, Eric McPherson, Tom Jemison, Johnnie Ifield, Syd Goodsell, Frank and Vic Vassella, Bert Bartrop, Bat Byrnes and Eddie Wannick. One magazine described the scene thus. “The NSW Championship TT Road Races…must be classed as one of the most successful motor cycle classics that have been promoted. Crowds of enthusiasts arrived at the course as early as Friday and pitched their camps at various vantage points on the circuit, and it is estimated that there were approximately three thousand spectators present prior to the first race.” The 75-mile NSW Senior (500cc) TT was won by Jack Chignell (father of future stalwart of the sport, Jan Blizzard), from Cec Weatherby and Don Bain. Chignell established a new lap record at 3 minutes 21 seconds which was equalled in the later Blaxland Handicap by Victor Vassella.
The October 1936 meeting carried the title of the NSW Grand Prix, and once again the Senior race was held over 75 miles. With his 500cc Manx Norton, Leo Tobin, a motorcycle dealer at Petersham in Sydney, had established himself as the man to beat in the state, but his quest for the top title on the day started badly when he knocked over an official who had run onto the grid to help another rider push-start his machine. Picking himself up from the dust, Tobin apologised profusely, then heaved his own Norton into life and set off after the dust cloud in the distance. Within one lap he had rocketed to the front, leaving Chignell, Bat Byrnes and Vassella to sort out the placings. It looked a foregone conclusion, but when Tobin was halfway around the last of the 20 laps, his engine spluttered and died – out of fuel.
The course announcer, Bill Reid, kept up a dramatic broadcast to the various public address points around the course, as Tobin accepted a soft drink bottle full of ‘ordinary benzine’. Chignell, urged on by his supporters in the crowd, was closing fast as Tobin coughed and spluttered towards the finish line. The last of the benzine disappeared into the engine as Tobin crested the rise in the home straight and coasted down across the line with a silent motor, the narrowest of winners.
In 1937, the Blaxland Shire Council refused permission for the roads to be closed and the scheduled October meeting was shifted to Monday January 3rd, 1938, with practice held the previous weekend. The new-year date was unusual for a road race meeting, as this period was the height of the hugely-popular speedway season. One of the visiting English speedway riders, Bill Kitchen, had thoughtfully packed an ex-works 500cc Manx Norton in his kit for his season Down Under, and topped the billing at Hartley. Despite a blisteringly hot day a large crowd turned out to see the stars in action, but everyone present was well and truly covered in dust by the time the field for the 20-lap NSW Senior TT came to the grid. Art Senior, at the time the holder of the Australian Land Speed record, leapt away into the lead from Harry Hinton, with Kitchen struggling through he dust after a slow start. Belting the lap record down to 3 minutes 10 seconds, Senior had the race under control until the clutch of his Ariel expired at the halfway stage. This left Hinton and Kitchen locked in a ding-dong battle, with the one-eyed Hinton holding the advantage until his BSA conked out on lap 16. Kitchen took the flag from Don Bain’s Velocette, with Rudge-mounted Vic Vassella third. Kitchen sailed back to England without the Norton, which was sold to Sydney rider Bat Byrnes, who took it to a trio of Senior TT wins at Bathurst in 1939, 1940 and 1949. Kitchen’s 350 Manx went to New Zealand with Syd Kirwin and is now owned by Ken McIntosh.
Hartley held one more meeting, the NSW Grand Prix in October,1938, but its thunder had been stolen by the new track at Mount Panorama, Bathurst, which opened with a dirt surface in 1938 and was tar-sealed by Easter 1939. Harry Hinton, riding the first Gold Star BSA seen in NSW, won the Senior GP at Hartley’s final meeting from Byrnes’s ex-Kitchen Norton, with Senior third on his Ariel. Western Suburbs MCC now had a new baby – their purpose-built one-mile Miniature TT ‘Poplars’ circuit at Blacktown, right in their own backyard. Hartley, the circuit that was described in the press as ‘the most picturesque TT circuit in Australia”, faded into a dim memory. One bizarre tale from the course’s history concerns an Italian chap who ran the Provision Stall from the front yard of his home on the southern end of the circuit. He was found murdered and several local louts arrested who testified that they believed he had a fortune in cash stashed somewhere in the house – a rumour that proved to be tragically false.
Ride it today
The roads that comprised the Hartley Circuit are still there and easily accessible to the weekend tourer. Hartley is about 2 hours easy ride from Sydney, and the most scenic route is via Bells Line of Road from Richmond through Bilpin. At Bell, which these days is no more than a truck weighing station, turn left towards Mount Victoria, following the railway line. About five kilometres on the right you’ll see a small sign to Hartley Vale. This is tarred for much of the way but is very narrow, dropping steeply down the mountain side to the valley floor.
As you reach Hartley Vale you’ll pass the Comet Inn on the right, these days a bed and breakfast place, and a little further on the left is Collit’s Inn which until recently was a very highly regarded restaurant but a little too far off the beaten track to remain a commercial success. Turn left here and you’re on the old race course in the original direction of racing. Follow the road through sweeping right and left corners for about two kilometres and you’ll reach a V-shaped intersection. Turn right though 120 degrees and head north for another two kilometres towards the Lett River where another right hander swings you back onto the Hartley Vale Road. Except for one short section, the road is tar-sealed and smooth, but spare a thought for those tough buggers back in the thirties who ploughed over the bumps and corrugations on spindly machines with little in the way of suspension or brakes. One can only imagine what sort of pluck it took to average 120 km/h through the choking dust – it paid to be the man out front.
Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Dennis Quinlan, Brian Greenfield, OBA Archives.