Story: Jim Scaysbrook • Photos: Karel Zegers, OBA archives
Mike Hailwood once told me that around the original 14 kilometre Spa Francorchamps circuit, there was no one better than Cyril John ‘Jack’ Findlay. That’s high praise for someone who, with little road racing experience and an unenviable record of crashing, quit his job as an accountant in a Melbourne bank in 1958 and set sail for England with his wife Eileen, in company with Harry Hinton Junior and Harry’s wife Fay, as well as Tom and Betty Phillis and Keith and Geraldine Campbell. As well as a famous family name, Harry had the skill to match, three Australian TT wins to his name, plus a season’s racing in Europe under his belt. Jack, on the other hand, was an almost totally unknown on the local scene, with well-worn tackle and no results to speak of.
Born in 1935, Cyril John Findlay ‘borrowed’ the road licence from his father Jack at age 15 and used it to get a competition licence from the ACU of Victoria. From that day onward, he was Jack Findlay, and for the next seven years he took in as much racing as he could afford, at his local circuits Fishermen’s Bend in the heart of Melbourne, and Darley near Bacchus Marsh, one hour west of the city. There were also annual bashes at the incredibly narrow Victoria Park circuit at Ballarat, and occasionally at Mount Panorama, Bathurst. It only amounted to around ten outings a year, so in his spare time Jack honed his mechanical skills working as a race mechanic with speedway rider John Board. Board also had a Norton – a cobbled together collection of bits that included a 1948 long stroke engine in a later frame, and after breaking an ankle at Darley he offered it to Jack to ride.
On his arrival in England, Jack settled in Birmingham and took a job at BSA, Entering as many meetings as he could afford on the ex-Noel Cheney 350 Manx Norton that he had brought with him. For the next four years, Jack ordered a new Manx, a total of two 500s and two 350s, and managed to make enough from start money and his two other jobs to stay afloat. His first Grand Prix start came at the West German GP where he rode his 350 in the 500 race, finishing 14th. At Zandvoort, Holland in 1959, Jack met up with another Aussie racer from Melbourne, Bob West, who was on the first leg of an extended holiday and bound for Britain. Jack’s finances were at an all-time low and after the Isle of Man TT, he went back to Birmingham to work in a factory supplying components to BMC and to race occasionally in England. Bob also secured a job, as a fitter and turner, or millwright as the trade was known in UK. He rented a house and Jack and Eileen moved in to share the expenses. Throughout the winter of 1959, Jack and Bob accumulated enough money to buy an Austin Threeway (an ex-furniture van so called because it had front, back and side doors). Bob, who had not raced in 1959, acquired a 1959 model 350 Manx Norton from a dealer in Wales, who had bought it to ride to work, but had never been raced. Deciding that the gearing was rather too tall for Welsh streets, the dealer parted with the as-new machine. A 500 soon joined the fleet and the pair began a fit-out on the van in preparation for a season on the Continent. All four Nortons fitted easily into the van, with four ambulance stretchers above for sleeping quarters.
West, who passed away in 2009, remembered the year well. “Jack passed on a huge amount of experience to me. He helped with the paperwork that was vital in organising starts in Europe and we got on very well. We did thousands of miles in the van and the only time it ever broke down was when a wire fell off the distributor in Germany. We did a lot of races including several in the Eastern Block, and managed to make a living. At one stage we raced at Tubbergen in Holland but Jack crashed and was concussed so he couldn’t drive. We stayed for the presentation then jumped in the van and I drove to Austria where we had to collect our visa to get into Yugoslavia. Then we drove non-stop to race at Opatija. I led the 350 race until the last corner when I missed a gear and Jack and another bloke got through. At the end of the year I came home to Australia, and in 1961 had my best-ever season, due, no doubt to the experience I had gained racing with Jack.” 1961 was the year that Jack scored his first World Championship points when he finished fifth in the East German Senior GP at Sachsenring in July. At the end of the year, Eileen decided she could not endure another Birmingham winter and returned to Melbourne with their son Gregory.
In 1962, Jack finally received the coveted nomination to represent Australia at the Isle of Man TT, which carried with it a small but very welcome stipend. But it was another wretched season, punctuated by blow ups to the point that he finished the year almost flat broke. Then came the break that turned his career around, virtually at the point when Jack felt he was going to have to it give racing away and return to a mundane existence in Australia. He had become friendly with Lew Ellis, the Competitions Manager at Shell, and with Lew’s financial assistance, was able to purchase the very special Matchless G50 built by Bob McIntyre but raced only a few times before Bob’s death (on a Norton) at Oulton Park in August 1962.
1963 was a big year for Jack. He moved to Paris with his new girlfriend Nanou, who helped organise Jack’s racing schedule and negotiate starting money with promoters. On the Matchless, Jack scored 11 international race wins in the season, was second to Mike Hailwood’s MV Agusta in the Italian 500cc Grand Prix, and eighth in the 500cc World Championship. For the next five years Jack and the Matchless were consistently at the forefront of the privateers and in 1966 placed third in the championship behind Agostini and Hailwood. Jack’s forte was at the big, fast circuits, particularly the old 14 km Spa-Francorchamps, where he was an acknowledged ace. His rivals used to say he was millimetre-perfect through the swervery in the Ardennes, keeping the big single flat out where others backed off. His fastest average lap was 202 km/h – amazing stuff for a motorcycle with a top speed of only 230 km/h. However despite its incredible reliability, the Matchless was becoming less competitive with every season, and was pensioned off at the end of 1968.
It had also been a painful year. In the Isle of Man, his Bultaco seized on the fast run down to Quarter Bridge, somersaulting down the road and eventually landing on his foot. “I had 23 fractures in the foot so I missed the opportunity to ride Francis Beart’s 350 Aermacchi and his Norton in the Senior, something I was really looking forward to. However the next year we made up for it with a third place on the Aermacchi in the 350 TT. That gave me a lot of pleasure, especially as the rear tyre had worn right through the seat. It wore through the stuffing, then started attacking my leathers, so I had to stand up everywhere. I had cramps all over the place, especially in the legs. In the Finishers Tent afterwards the Dunlop guy saw the seat and went berserk! ‘How could you do that to my tyre?’ he was yelling.”
His 1969 season finally saw some ‘works’ support, from the fledgling Linto concern, but it was a sad series of non-finishes and the partnership dissolved mid-way through the season. On a borrowed Arter Matchless, Jack crashed at top speed in the Belgian GP, destroying the bike and knocking himself around severely. Ironically, Jack’s worst season in years had been captured on film by the French director Jerome Laperrousaz during the making of Continental Circus, a gory epic where Jack was (rightly) portrayed as the battling privateer against the might of Agostini and MV Agusta. A season on a Seeley G50 in 1970 produced meagre results and was enough to convince Jack that he was wasting his time on a 500 single, and together with Italian Daniele Fontana, built a machine in Milan powered by a lightly modified air-cooled T500 Suzuki twin.
A third place at Spa augured well, and better was to come. Having already secured the title with eight straight wins, Agostini gave the Ulster GP at Dunrod in August a miss, and Jack was there to capitalize. His first Grand Prix win, achieved on a self-built creation with no factory assistance, was just reward for years of effort and not inconsiderable pain. It also raised his profile in Italy, attracting some sponsorship, and encouraged him and Fontana to built a new version for the 1972 season, which they called the Jada (JAck and DAniele). Super light at the FIM minimum of 100 kg, the Jada produced precious few results, the highlight being second to Agostini in Czechoslovakia. At the Isle of Man, Suzuki GB loaned him a TR750 triple, on which he finished third in the Formula 750 TT. But the season did produce something tangible; a contract from Suzuki Italy to ride a works water-cooled twin in the 1973 World Championships. He also had a TR750 for the inaugural FIM F750 Championship. Aboard the 500, Jack scored his greatest-yet victory – the Isle of Man Senior TT. “It was just a good, steady ride. Everything went as planned and as it should have. The bike was rather heavy; because the crankcases were road-going aluminium ones, the engine weighed a ton. It was very fast, but lacked a bit in the handling department. At the same time I was riding the three-cylinder TR750 Suzuki, and once you’d been around the Island on that, anything else was child’s play!”
He also won the Swedish round of the F750 Cup and finally received the call-up from Suzuki Japan to join their works team for 1974 on the all-new RG500 square four, plus a new TR750 for the FIM series. Fifth place in the 500 title and third in the 750 would seem to be a fair result, given the chronic unreliability of the RG500, but Suzuki offered no contract for 1975. “The trouble really started at the Isle of Man, where I had the new four-cylinder 500. I’d lapped in practice at 108 mph, just shy of Mike Hailwood’s lap record, so I was pretty satisfied. But race day dawned wet and it was a disaster. It wasn’t raining at the start but it was halfway round. Michelin had just started making slicks, but there were only slicks or rain tyres, no intermediates. I knew that if it stopped raining the rain tyres would overheat and the tread would come off, and I didn’t want that, so I started with a slick rear and treaded front. Before I even got halfway round the first lap it was raining. Those early slicks were such hard compound things that every time I tried to accelerate it would wheel-spin. Out of Ramsey Hairpin I could hardly get up the hill, it was wheel-spinning and going sideways so I thought, What’s the point?” I guess I was one of the few people to pull out of a TT when well in the lead, but it would have taken ages to change to the rain tyre and it wouldn’t have lasted anyway. Suzuki didn’t want to know me because I stopped when they felt I was certain to win the Senior TT, but I think I made the right decision. But it was difficult to explain this to the Japanese because it wasn’t raining at the pits on the other side of the island – they just didn’t understand.”
Understandably miffed, Jack and Daniele switched camps, obtaining a new Yamaha TZ750 from Kel Carruthers in the USA. After some frame and engine mods, the machine did sterling service all year, winning the F750 title and racing in 500 Grands Prix with TZ250 barrels fitted. A third at his beloved Spa helped him to tenth place in the 1975 500cc standings, but Jack realized the hybrid Yamaha was outgunned and bought a new production RG500 for 1976, retaining the Yamaha in 750 form. The same tackle, with Nico Bakker frames, formed his kit for 1977, where he scored his third 500cc GP win at the daunting Salzburgring. Following a fatal accident in the earlier 350cc race, the 500 GP was boycotted by the works riders, but the result hoisted Jack, temporarily, to the top of the championship standings. Two weeks later at Imola, he was near death, after the rear wheel of his Suzuki broke up and flung him down the road. In the huge crash, Jack’s heart stopped and he suffered extensive bruising of the brain, yet he was back in the saddle two weeks later at the Isle of Man – he needed the money. But it was the end of his career as a front line racer – the old judgement was just not there and he had his final GP start in Germany in August – 20 years after he started on the championship trail. As he did two decades earlier, Jack finished 14th, and in typically laconic fashion said, “I don’t seem to have made any progress in 20 years, so I may as well retire.” At the time, Jack had more Grand Prix starts to his name than any other rider.
At 43 years of age his body had had enough, but he still needed to work. He briefly considered returning to Australia, but received an offer from Michelin to work in its tyre-testing program. It was just what he needed – a chance to stay connected with motorcycling without the dangers of the race tracks, or so he thought. For nine years everything went smoothly, Jack enjoying a new relationship with a French lass named Dominique who owned a boutique in Paris, and a new pastime – tennis. Then in April 1987, while road testing Michelin’s new radial tyres on public roads near Jerez in Spain, Jack collided with a car which made a U-turn in front of him. Jack reckons only the skills he had learned from a quarter century of racing saved him from a nasty end, although he suffered serious leg injuries that required more then fifty stitches. But it was the end of the road as far as motorcycling went, at least in an active sense.
While he was convalescing, Jack received an approach from the FIM, to see if he was interested in joining the organization as Technical Director. His role would include formulating and implementing current and future technical specifications for Grand Prix motorcycles, particularly in the 500cc class. With his vast experience at Grand Prix level, the fit was good. The job entailed attending Grands Prix around the world, and with the advent of the Australian GP in 1989, it gave him the chance to return home once a year.
Gradually however, Jack’s worsening emphysema caught up with him. A lifetime non-smoker, Jack reckoned he developed the crippling disease through being crouched over the fuel tank of a racing motorcycle for most of this life, and inhaling the vapours of the sometimes exotic brews. The travelling aspect of the position became more and more difficult and Jack retired to a quieter life. That life became a battle with increasing immobility, so much so that Jack was unable to travel to Australia to witness the unveiling of a statue of himself, erected in the main street of his home town of Mooroopna in 2006. The life-size bronze, depicting Jack on his Isle of Man-winning Suzuki TR500, is the work of Phil Mune, who has several other major works to his credit. Financial support for the cost of the work came from many sources. The FIM, Jack’s employers after he retired from the saddle, contributed $6,000, a figure matched by Motorcycling Australia. Michelin also came to the party, as did numerous local business and individuals.
On display for the dedication of the statue were around a dozen racing bikes with Findlay connections, including the actual Yamaha TZ750 on which Jack beat Barry Sheene by a single point to capture the F750 title in 1975. This Yamaha had been provided for Jack by Melbourne businessman Reg Hunt, and was brought to Australia following the 1976 European season. It is now owned by Shepparton spray painter and classic racer Noel Heenan. The statue was unveiled by Jack’s brother Robert and his sister Joan, who both live in Melbourne.
It is believed that Jack Findlay is only the second motorcyclist to have a statue erected in his honour in Australia. A granite monument to the memory of record breaker and early racing pioneer Harold Parsons stands in Punt Road, Richmond. Jack’s bronze now stands in permanent recognition to one of the true heroes of the Continental Circus and Grand Prix racing the way it was before television and global commercial interests took over.